BY STEVE PERSALL
Times Movie Critic
Nobody should be surprised when Steven Soderbergh says he's retiring from making movies, or if he changes his mind a year from now. Very little about the 50-year-old's career has been what people expected, even when making Ocean's Eleven sequels.
From sex, lies and videotape to Magic Mike and each smart hit or arty failure in-between, Soderbergh has been tough to peg.
If he is serious about retiring, Side Effects is a satisfying finale to Soderbergh's theatrical career. (He says he'll create for television, with an HBO movie about Liberace debuting this year.) Side Effects is a tidy mystery-thriller, so the less known about it before viewing, the better. The easy adjective to apply is "Hitchcockian," although the movie is closer in stalking-dread spirit to the works of Roman Polanski or Claude Chabrol.
Side Effects begins at a crime scene, in the quiet time between an offense and police investigation. Bloody bare footprints lead the camera through details of a normal uptown existence gone violently wrong. Whodunit and to whom soon becomes clear, with what film buffs will describe as a "Janet Leigh" moment. The why is where the movie takes its spoiler-resistant turns, abruptly at times, but Soderbergh's brisk pacing disguises that well enough.
Soderbergh tracks back to three months before the crime, when Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) already displays signs of a disturbed personality.
Emily survives an irrational, apparently suicidal act, winding up in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychologist preferring her hospitalization but settling for prescribing the antidepressant Zoloft. "It helps stop the brain from telling you you're sad," he tells Emily.
But why should Emily be sad? Her husband Martin is played by Channing Tatum, the sexiest man alive for now. Martin is getting out of prison after serving time for insider trading, and while the resulting loss of their affluent lifestyle was tough, better times appear to be ahead.
Zoloft isn't working for Emily, so Jonathan switches to a new antidepressant, the fictional Ablixa, suggested by Emily's former therapist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Mara suitably plays Emily inscrutably, ready for whatever quicksilver personality change prompted by Ablixa or Scott Z. Burns' script. She's as difficult to decipher as Mara's other expertly troubled girl (yet without a dragon tattoo). Law continues his career second wind with a deftly conflicted turn as Jonathan, who may or may not deserve the jam he's in. Tatum and Zeta-Jones get less screen time but are effectively used.
Burns previously worked with Soderbergh on Contagion, and Side Effects echoes that virus thriller's theme of messes created by medical and personal ethics being violated. Nobody except perhaps the victim is who they seem to be, while Soderbergh and Burns tease and tug the rug from under the audience, never yanking it. Smart moves, smart movie.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow him on Twitter @StevePersall.