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Last year at about this time, Steven Soderbergh released Haywire, an unassuming, taut little action thriller that worked pretty well. This year, he goes for something weightier and with a bigger cast. Side Effects is not a failure, but it probably would have worked better with smaller ambitions.

I Want a New Drug

Mara captures all the faces of Emily
Mara captures all the faces of Emily

The movie is marketed with a “no late admittance” gimmick that Hitchcock used with Psycho. Interestingly, Side Effects opens on an exterior of an office building, just like Psycho, but that’s where the similarities end.

There are twists involved so I won’t say too much. But don’t get too excited. The twists are often implausible and the drag the movie, lurching, into new stylistic territory. But up to the twists, here’s what happens.

Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor. Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is getting out of prison for insider trading. Things seem fine until Emily makes a suicide attempt. After that she catches the attention of Dr. John Banks (Jude Law), a competent psychiatrist and a big believer in the pharmaceutical industry. Banks is introduced to us as a bilingual, worldly professional; he recognizes a Haitian’s ravings about his father’s ghost as cultural grief, not mental psychosis.

He takes Emily as a client and begins to treat her. Her first cocktail of serotonin-boosters makes her sleepy, so they change her to a new drug, “Ablixa”, which is fresh on the market. One of the side effects is sleepwalking, but during the day, Emily is a better person so she stays on it.

To continue I’ll have to mention some spoilers, but I’ll try to be vague. While sleepwalking, Emily does something bad. The police get involved and naturally they want to know about her medications. When Dr. Banks tells his wife about his patient, she asks: “Did they do it? Are they guilty?”

“Those are two different things,” he says.

Rooney Mara sells her character from beginning to end. It isn’t always clear which part of her is the real Emily and which is the Emily on certain drugs. Toward the end there are still more layers to Emily that Mara has carefully planted.

Tatum doesn’t have much to do as her thinly defined husband; instead Law gets the second-most-prominent position in the film. He descends from respected professional to greedy, selfish yuppie. Catherine Zeta Jones has a small part in the first half of the film, and makes an important return in the second. I found her implausibly larger than life, which may have contributed to the uneven tone of the film.

Twisting and Lurching

The “don’t be late” gimmick doesn’t help the movie. It oversells what has become a pretty standard movie device, which is to show an intriguing scene before flashing back to the beginning of the story. The opening scene in Side Effects is not any more intriguing than any other film’s. On the other hand, it raised my expectations, and although Soderbergh is meticulous in his storytelling, Side Effects is no more gripping, scene by scene, than any other well-made mystery/thriller. If anything, I wish Side Effects had been undersold.

The film changes course after we return to the first shot, now fully explained. What had been a drama about a depressed woman, becomes a film noir about a fearful doctor trying to avoid legal scrutiny. And what had seemed like a serious “issue movie” about side effects, a heartless drug industry, and the doctors in their pockets, becomes a sordid noir-ish thriller. In desperation, the new protagonist, Dr. Banks, devolves into conspiracy thinking. And this being Hollywood, the movie offers the possibility that his paranoid conspiracies are actually true.

Just when I start to convince myself that I care about the issues and the characters, everything changes. When that works, we call it a plot twist. But when it doesn’t, it just seems like a sudden, unexpected shift in tone that disengages you from the film while you readjust.

Don’t get me wrong, scene by scene Side Effects is well made. But as a whole it tries to do too many different things. So don’t be late, or just don’t go.