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Steven Soderbergh claims he is retiring from directing this year. I hope that is not true. The workhorse filmmaker deserves a nice vacation, but American cinema will have to find someone else to direct intelligent, original thrillers if Soderbergh really does bow out of Hollywood. Side Effects finds Soderbergh in fine form, and is a thriller that both entertains and queries its audience about their beliefs in modern medicine and criminal justice. The marketing never quite nailed the film's tone, and Side Effects made little impact at the box office. Hopefully the film will find an audience on Blu-ray because Side Effects is a sharp thriller buoyed by lead actors Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum. Soderbergh targets American pharmaceutical companies with this tale of a miracle depression drug that makes a previously docile woman kill her husband. There's much to enjoy below the surface of Side Effects, and, while the twists get a bit outrageous, this is Soderbergh's most entertaining thriller in years.
Emily Taylor (Mara) tries to be happy when husband Martin (Tatum) returns from prison after serving several years for insider trading but finds her past depression has returned. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Emily sees Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law), who prescribes her an experimental drug for depression called Ablixa. Overnight, Emily is transformed and begins living a full life again, with only some sleepwalking episodes as a side effect of the drug. After a period of happiness, Emily falls into a sleep-like trance while making dinner and stabs her confounded husband to death upon his return from work. The bad publicity floors Dr. Banks, who begins defending his professional judgment while studying Emily's past treatment with psychiatrist Victoria Siebert (Zeta-Jones). The good doctor finds it tricky to balance preserving his career and defending his patient.
Soderbergh often makes films about topics that interest, infuriate or entertain him. I suspect big pharmaceutical appeals to the former two qualities, and Side Effects poses the interesting dilemma of how this country should regulate the prescribing of experiment medications. Banks only recommended Ablixa after other medications had little impact on Emily's condition, and previously knew of no other cases where a patient taking Ablixa acted violently. Is one bad apple among thousands of Ablixa users enough to derail the availability of the drug? Banks also finds himself hung out to dry by his partners, who claim he made several grave errors in Emily's treatment. The tension causes Banks' wife to take their son and leave home for a time.
It would be a crime to spoil all the craziness that follows Emily's arrest for murder. Side Effects goes down an exciting, winding road full of nefarious characters and unexpected developments. Some many criticize the plot's sharp turns, but repeat viewings reveal that Soderbergh lays a solid foundation for every twist and turn. Rooney is perfect as a wide-eyed victim who fails to grasp the seriousness of her predicament, and Law handles his leading-man duties with ease. His mid-film breakdown is genuine and affecting. Zeta-Jones plays an absolute ice queen who is hardly sympathetic to Banks' public tribulations, and her Dr. Siebert hardly hides her relief at passing the buck to someone else. Side Effects is a sharp, entertaining thriller with plenty of moral questions, and only Soderbergh can churn out movies like this on a recurring basis.
Shot digitally on the Red Epic camera system, Side Effects sports the slick, desaturated look Soderbergh has favored of late. The 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is crystal clear throughout, with excellent detail and texture. Colors lean toward yellow and grey but are nicely saturated, and shadows cloak detail only as Soderbergh intends. I noticed only minor banding and noise in the image.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is subtle but effective, and presents clean dialogue whether from the front of the sound field or delivered from out of frame. Ambient street and hospital noise wafts into the surround speakers, and a violent car crash receives solid LFE support. The trickling score is weighty and perfectly balanced. English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Universal gives Side Effects its typical "combo pack" treatment, and the set includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy and codes to redeem iTunes-compatible and UltraViolet digital copies. The discs are packed in a standard Blu-ray case, which is wrapped in a matching slipcover. Soderbergh films often get shafted in the extras department, and this is no exception. Behind the Scenes of Side Effects (2:56/HD) is a jokey look at Rooney Mara's work on the film that doesn't exactly provide much detail into the production. Also included is an interactive Ablixa Website Experience, which is not particularly interesting. You also get an Ablixa Commercial (0:54/HD) and an Intenin Commercial (0:48/HD).
Please, Mr. Soderbergh, don't retire! Side Effects is yet another slick thriller from the dependable director. Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones all give excellent performances, and Mara is particularly good as a young woman who kills her husband after taking an experimental depression drug. The film's twists are numerous and the narrative is highly entertaining. Side Effects deserves to find an audience on Blu-ray and comes Highly Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.