Malingering comes into play in Steven Soderbergh’s latest—and reportedly last—major motion picture. Medical jargon for faking illness or disability for financial or other gain, it is perhaps appropriate, since Soderbergh has not been a major player in a long time (not counting the overrated Magic Mike), though the recent Contagion was a solidly entertaining medical thriller. Striving to be as twisty as a Hitchcock film and much more provocative than Contagion (also scripted by Scott Z. Burns), Side Effects is just a con job.
It starts out promisingly. After a Hitchcock-type opening involving spilled blood, the plot tightly focuses on Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), who is suffering from severe depression. Like everyone else, apparently, in New York City, she’s been hopping from one anti-depressant to another, though what’s bewildering is that the husband she professes to adore (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison, where he served a four-year sentence for insider trading. After Emily’s lifestyle took a plunge from his absence, he promises her they will be soon be living the McMansion high life again. Inexplicably, her funk deepens.
What’s interesting is how Emily is given yet another prescription after a suicide attempt, along with the film’s satirical asides about the pill-popping mind-set of society in general. The exemplar of better living through chemistry is psychiatrist Jon Banks (Jude Law), who becomes Emily’s doctor after treating her in the emergency room. At her insistence, he puts her on a brand-new SSRI that he is being highly paid to promote. Emily seems to improve, but she also starts sleepwalking and blanking out. The film actually seems to be going somewhere, perhaps exploring the uncharted terrain of for-profit pharmaceuticals on vulnerable psyches. Instead, it devolves into a noir-style crime drama that heaps layers of contrivance in a bogus attempt at being mystifying.
The only thing that keeps the ramshackle plot from being flat-out laughable is Mara’s impenetrable intensity. If not for her, Emily’s enigmatic motivations would have sent the sedated pace and deliberately weighty proceedings into a coma. Meanwhile, the story throws in meaningless scenarios just to keep the monkey wrench turning—one gotcha moment being the gratuitous appearance of tipped-off police officers outside of Jon’s consult room, another being the worn-out device of a secretly recorded conversation.
Catherine Zeta-Jones as Emily’s former shrink, a clinical femme fatale, is meant to add steam to the intrigue, but she’s too much of a caricature to be believable. Law is commendable for giving Dr. Banks at least the appearance of humanity, but it’s hard to be on the side of this superficial diagnostician, especially since he commits all kinds of venialities just to keep his shrewish trophy wife (Vinessa Shaw). Despite the director’s attempts to sex up the story, the result is body cheat, not body heat.