It Should Have Been Much Better: A Review of Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects

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Film: Side Effects
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Primary Cast: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones
U.S. Release Date: 8 February 2013

I’ve been meaning to make a quality analytic post for a few days, but I’ve been too busy with work. I do plan to post something substantial over the weekend. But, for now, how about a review of Side Effects? YEAH REVIEWING A FILM THAT CAME OUT MORE THAN A YEAR AGO HOORAY

It’s been about a year since I watched Side Effects, but I did review it on letterboxd at the time. What follows is a short, and summary-less review that is mostly a reworking of the one I wrote last August.

Right now, Side Effects has an 83 on RT, so I am clearly in the minority on this one. Which is sort of scary, but here we go.

Rooney Mara’s Face is the Best Part
Side Effects is an interesting film, in that is holds the attention of its viewers. It’s even a fun ride, while it lasts. The problem is, once that ride is over, viewers are left with very little of substance to hold on to as far as I can tell.

When I first saw a trailer for Side Effects, I became quite excited for the film. I was not happy about Tatum’s presence in it (he looks like a thumb and I simply do not care for his acting), but Rooney Mara, Jude Law, and the film’s premise all had me intrigued. Unfortunately, Soderbergh’s 2013 psychological thriller simply did not live up to my expectations. It is possible that my expectations were over-inflated and that I would have felt better about the film if I had gone into it cold, but I didn’t. So there.

I appreciate what Side Effects tries to do, it just falls short for me. The politics of the relationships between pharmaceutical companies and doctors, insanity and its relationship to crime, and mental health in general are all topics that are worth exploring and that, if properly treated, could produce truly impactful films.

But Side Effects didn’t affect me (Ha!). Instead, it held me at arms length while showing me characters I did not care about navigating and revealing plot twists without much behind them. The performances in the film are fine and it is beautifully shot, but that isn’t enough.

Side Effects puts a great deal of emphasis on its plot and the execution of that plot, unfortunately neither seems quite strong enough to hold up the film. Twists and turns abound in Side Effects (so much so, that I did not bother to summarize it here because SPOILERS), but a number of them fall flat.

Personally, when I am watching the sort of thriller that Side Effects wants to be, I want to feel properly duped by the revelation of dramatic plot twists. That is, I want to feel (because the film indicates that such is the case) that the crazy truth the film tries to shock me with has been there all along and that I just didn’t notice it. I want that sort of film to take calculated steps to trick me into believing something other than the truth and then to use its plot twists to bring that truth back to the surface effectively (and to some worthwhile end). In Side Effects however, many of the plot twists are just too clunky. They aren’t slick enough. The film throws them out without properly setting them up. By the end of Side Effects, I felt less like I was viewing a well-crafted story and more like the film was making things up as it went.

Subjects of mental health, health care, violence, and the pharmaceutical industry could all contribute to a film with something worthwhile to say, but Side Effects only seems interested in surprising viewers, not in asking them to think. Side Effects is probably a somewhat better film than I am making it sound. However, with its particular premise, I cannot shake the thought that it could have been something much more impressive than it is. So, for me, this film is a disappointment that does not have me hurrying to watch any of Soderbergh’s earlier works.
Watch Side Effects for yourself. 

Until Next Time
I know there are a good deal of positive reviews of this film out there, and its certainly possible that, if I were to watch Side Effects again, I would feel less disappointed by it. I’m a much more experienced film-viewer now than I was even a year ago so maybe, upon a second viewing (where I would not be distracted by following the plot turns and all that jazz), I would find more in the film to like. Still, the fact that I have not once had an urge to watch Side Effects a second time, indicates the lack of overall impact it made. . . at least on me.

Am I wrong? Should I give Side Effects another chance? Is it actually a well-crafted thriller? Feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading yo.

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