What Worked, What Didn’t Work? Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Side Effects’

Rooney Mara in Side Effects
Rooney Mara in Side Effects
Photo: Open Road Films

I wanted to wait a little while before bringing up a spoiler discussion concerning Steven Soderbergh‘s Side Effects which is easily the best film I’ve seen of this brief new year thus far. It’s a film best seen without any information regarding its narrative in advance and while in this day and age that’s tough, you will certainly be rewarded if you can manage.

I gave the film a glowing review prior to its release praising Soderbergh’s direction, Scott Z. Burns‘ script, Rooney Mara‘s performance, Thomas Newman‘s score and Soderbergh’s cinematography. And now, after seeing it twice, I would love to discuss it a little further without the need to hide behind its twists and turns… Hell, I can now finally mention it has twists and turns as even that knowledge can ruin the experience.

I’ll keep my thoughts brief, since I’ve already praised the film, but I did want to mention a few things that didn’t particularly work for me, but at the same time I also don’t want to focus on the negative. So consider this just a bit of a conversation starter and hopefully you’ll bring plenty more to the table.

Before getting into any complaints, there was one argument against the film that I don’t quite understand. Some people said they were upset it wasn’t the out-and-out slamming of drug companies early trailers seemed to suggest, or perhaps that’s what was expected with Soderbergh at the helm. For me, what makes the film so great is how the first half is set up exactly like it’s going to be a major take down of Big Pharma only to turn the tables in the second half.

The commentary on pharmaceutical companies is still very much present, but Soderbergh and Burns have used that expectation to their advantage and turned it into a thriller where your expectations are only working against your chances of putting all the pieces together before all is revealed. To me, that was one of the more brilliant moves in the entire narrative, particularly that moment after Emily stabs Martin (Channing Tatum) and then slides into bed as the camera dollies in on the pill bottle on the bedside table. Perfect.

My largest frustration with the story, however, involves most everything that happens around Vinessa Shaw‘s character, Dierdre Banks, wife to Jude Law‘s Dr. Jonathan Banks. Perhaps I missed a reason for her to be the way she was, but I felt her character was by far the weakest, especially in a film where all of the other characters are so well developed.

It begins when Jonathan and her are having lunch before her job interview and they’re interrupted by Emily (Mara). Dierdre’s face exhibits she’s upset because she was hoping for the time to speak with her husband before the stress ate her up (understandable), but she seems to show no compassion for the clearly troubled girl in front of her who desperately needs help before she kills herself.

Side Effects
Photo: Open Road Films

Later on, Dierdre immediately jumps on Jonathan regarding the alleged sexual misconduct with a previous patient, seemingly unwilling to listen to what her husband has to say. This all comes back when she’s sent pictures of Jonathan in a hotel lobby with Emily as well as photos of a nearly-naked Emily on a bed. Again, she won’t listen to her husband’s explanations and doesn’t even stop to wonder who may have taken the pictures. This is the kind of short-sided behavior that pushes along the rom-coms we all hate so much, its hardly an ingredient that fits a smartly written thriller such as this.

After all, it doesn’t take a detective to wonder who would have taken the pictures of Jonathan and Emily in the lobby as well as the picture of only Emily (not Jonathan) in the hotel bedroom? How does that even make sense?

Her abandoning of Jonathan in a clear time of need bothered me to such an extent the ultimate ending also rubbed me the wrong way as Jonathan picks his step-child up from school and goes home with Dierdre. Granted, Jonathan had allowed his obsession with the Emily case to take over his life to the point he forgot to pick up Ezra (Mitchell Michaliszyn) from school, but if that’s his only sin some major apologizing needs to take place.

These things bothered me the first time I saw the film and to a lesser extent the second time, but it does beg the question as to whether these are details that ruin the experience or if you are able to overlook them and still enjoy the film. After all, virtually every movie is going to have issues on par with what I described above, it’s a question of whether or not the overall narrative can make up for any flaws along the way.

For me, I was clearly able to overlook these issues. I understood what they were doing. To me it seemed Burns and Soderbergh were attempting to cast a shadow of doubt over Jonathan, and if the wife was so easily convinced her husband may be stepping out on her why wouldn’t the audience begin second guess his actions? I guess I never followed that path of reasoning because I never believed Jonathan had done what he was being accused of.

There are a few other nits I could pick, but I don’t want to dig too deep a hole before handing things over to you.

So now it’s your turn, what worked in Side Effects for you and what do you believe didn’t work? Speak up below and don’t be afraid of getting into spoilers, this is an open forum.

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