The screenplay for Soderbergh's Side Effect is ingenious in the way it smuggles a second, altogether more devious story by you while appearing to tell you a straightforward narrative on the surface. Often this kind of sleight-of-hand can come off as forced and contrived but not this time. Frequent Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z Burns has thought it all the way through and Soderbergh's orchestrates the narrative with a master's steady hand. As a result, a story that could come across as preposterous in lesser hands, is pure moviegoing fun in theirs. Lots of stories can surprise you with a twist, but few can deceive you as to the the very nature of the story being told. It's a pleasure to be fooled.
At first blush the story could not appear more transparent. Poor Emily, played in another impressive star turn by Rooney Mara, suffers from crippling depression. When her white collar criminal husband, Channing Tatum, is released from prison there is hope her gloom will lift, but that fades as as she continues to sink beneath what she calls her "poisonous fog". Her well-meaning psychiatrist played by Jude Law is baffled as to why he cannot lift the gloom choking her life. When the situation becomes desperate the doctor prescribes an experimental new drug convinced that its unpredictable side effects are worth risking if there's a chance of a breakthrough.
All of this material is more than compelling enough to convince the audience that Emily's struggles are the entirety of the film's focus. In just its first half hour Side Effects has more on its mind than half a dozen big Hollywood films. Burns' screenplay delves into issues of mental illness and the country's medication culture where patients go from being human beings to being equations for therapists to solve with the correct combination of pills. Not that the film even requires these grand ideas, since movie-making this skilled needs no further justification. We give ourselves over to Soderbergh from the opening flash forward and it's not until deep into the story that we realize the degree to which he has been toying with us.
If there's a reason I give Side Effects less than a full-throated rave it's that the tone of the film remains muted even when the scipt goes for broke in the final act. One of Soderbergh's biggest assets as a director has always been his cool restraint. In his best films this helps to underline the red blood pumping through the story, like the electricity between Lopez and Clooney in Out of Sight or the white hot rage oven cooking in Terrence Stamp's eyes throughout The Limey. Side Effects stays stubbornly clinical even when the screenplay makes a late grab for lurid melodrama. One never gets the feeling the characters are being dragged uncontrollably forward by their desires and, without giving anything away, by the end of this particular story, you should.
Even if Side Effects' portrait of greed and weakness falls short of riveting, I will happily line up to let a master filmmaker guide me through a carefully designed web of twists. It may not rank high when compared with Soderbergh's finest but Side Effects is a worthy addition to one of the great filmographies. 7 out of 10