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Steven Soderbergh’s Strange Swan Song

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Rooney Mara proves herself a star performer who can hold the screen without bizarre hair and extreme behavior in Side Effects.

by
John Boot

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February 8, 2013 - 10:30 am
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Emily and especially Martin are the kind of intriguingly flawed characters that attract Soderbergh, and though the banker played by Tatum doesn’t get much screen time, the movie becomes a highly watchable clash of personalities as the plot moves in some unexpected directions.

Mara, all sad eyes and cheekbones, makes for a cunning and magnetic presence who hardly needs to raise her voice or her glance to steal scenes. She’s utterly convincing as her character slips into what she calls a “poisonous fog bank” of depression, and she’s so girlish and fragile that the audience can’t help rooting for her to pull out of her downward spiral even as some strange details about her case come to light.

Meanwhile Law does a terrific job with his morally compromised but still essentially decent (we think) physician. His character raises fraught, up-to-the-minute issues about overprescribing of drugs, about hushed-up side effects that might be worse than the disease being treated, and about the ethics of the dealings between doctors and drug companies. Though a feeble movie called Love and Other Drugs covered some of this ground a couple of years ago, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who previously collaborated on Contagion, have the intelligence to give these points the attention they deserve and do a credible job of working them into the narrative.

Yet the movie is nowhere near as propulsive or compelling as the formidable Contagion, and it becomes more formulaic as it goes on. (In fact, by the end, it pretty well matches the kind of 1940s potboilers Soderbergh imitated in The Good German.) All of this is in the service of keeping you guessing, which Soderbergh does elegantly, though you may or may not feel, at the end, that you got the kind of film you signed up for.

This review must remain vague so as not to spoil the plot, but despite Soderbergh’s evident refusal to make Side Effects too commercial, it will reward those who enjoy a well-crafted (if quiet and low-key) indie effort. Calling such a film a “thriller,” though, is a bit misleading; it’s more of a “thinker.”

****

More new release reviews from John Boot:

 Sean Penn Embarrasses Himself in Over-Acted Gangster Squad

With Django Unchained, Is QT Devolving Into the Weird Al Yankovic of Cinema?

Les Misérables: The Grand Musical Epic Does Not Disappoint

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John Boot is the pen name of a conservative writer operating under deep cover in the liberal media.
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