Steven Soderbergh had perhaps one of the most unique career paths out of any other filmmaker. The man did it his own way, always trying to do different things. His films weren't always great, although he made a lot of great films. But his craft, his sensibility has always made his films interesting. There's not necessarily a discernible "Soderberghian" style when it comes to his films and that's what is so great about him. Sure, you can find similar themes throughout his work and certainly "Side Effects" feels like a sibling to 2011's "Contagion," but the perfect example of his idiosyncrasy is with his last theatrically released film. "Side Effects" isn't an all-encompassing, career-defining piece of work, but it's a sexy, twisty, endlessly watchable psychosexual thriller that changes direction on you halfway through and becomes an engrossing procedural film. It's not without its flaws, but that's what makes it a fitting final Soderbergh film, a man who's not afraid of flaws.
"Side Effects" starts out with Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), who eagerly anticipates/dreads her husband's return from prison (Channing Tatum). Her husband, Martin, had been in prison for insider trading and, naturally, life has not been the same for Emily since his incarceration. Soon after his release, Emily winds up in the hospital for ramming her car into a concrete wall in a parking garage. This ultimately leads her to Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who is convinced to take her out of the hospital but wants to be directly involved in her case, subscribing her antidepressant pills.
When the pills he subscribes do not appear to be working, he takes a suggestion from Emily's former psychiatrist, Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and winds up putting Emily on a newer drug called Ablixa. Using Ablixa, Emily appears to have everything back in order, aside from an occasional sleep-walking episode, which is a side effect of the drug. From there, that's when things start to turn ugly. The film shifts perspective and becomes centered around Dr. Banks who winds up having to face the fact that his patient is now guilty of having committed a murder, thanks to the Ablixa drug.
Then we watch as Dr. Banks's life starts to fall apart and he winds up becoming obsessed with Emily's murder case. This is where, with an average director, the film would start to falter but the remarkable thing about "Side Effects" is how seamlessly it changes direction and how the shift in perspective actually feels like a natural progression in the story. What also helps is the game cast. Jude Law and Rooney Mara are both at the top of their game, turning in great performances. Catherine Zeta-Jones turns in one of the juiciest roles she's had in years. And Vinessa Shaw, who plays Dr. Bank's wife, is also great in this.
"Side Effects" is a well-crafted film and you can tell that Soderbergh and crew really had fun playing up the more "psychological" aspects of this psychological thriller. And when the second half of the film starts to piece together what the first half of the film was really about, it's even more impressive. That said, the twisty nature of "Side Effects" can be a little much in some places. You're not going to buy all the revelations and, at a certain point, it really starts to get far-fetched. The second half of the film is just as fun to watch as the first half, but the first half comes off much more naturally. Also, like Contagion, the film doesn't really build into one huge climax but rather a series of smaller "big moments" that bring things forward. It's not that the film necessarily needed a big climax, it certainly didn't, but it did feel too much like the film was going from plot-point to plot-point instead of everything naturally unfolding.
Nevertheless, these days, films like these aren't as well-made as this one is and there's never a point where you feel the film is insulting your intelligence. "Side Effects" is able to get away with such a twisty plot because even when it starts to head into the ridiculous, it establishes the first half so well, that it never takes you out of the film fully.
When Soderbergh first announced his retirement, it was natural to look at his final few films with more scrutiny. "Side Effects" is easily the best of the bunch. It kinda makes you wish that Soderbergh would forget about his retirement and make more films like these. Nobody else wants to make smart psychological, sexual thrillers these days, so why not? But Soderbergh's never gonna do what you want him to do, and that's why we love him. For a guy who claims to be bored with the craft of filmmaking, you'll be surprised that "Side Effects" winds up being so enjoyable to watch.