Review: Side Effects (Has a Split Personality)

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Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is a fairly savvy whodunit about a girl, her therapist and a series of jumbled motivations that ends—or rather begins—with murder.

The film’s trailer, like Soderbergh’s ongoing declarations of retirement, shouldn’t be taken at face value. Side Effects is really four different films whose premises can’t be shared without “spoiling.” (As was true for Brave and Cabin in the Woods, to share plot is to over-share.) So while the film begins as a psychodrama, genre requirements force it into other territories: courtroom drama, forensic thriller, romantic murder mystery. It’s as if, the prescription for genre side effects, is more genres.

Side Effects arrives in theaters a week after Warm Bodies. Last week’s comedy used zombies as a metaphor for modern disaffect, while in Side Effects, Rooney Mara gives us an unusually bright-eyed zombie whose tears even seem dead.

Almost everywhere in this New York (Mara’s work, her apartment, the courtroom, etc.) carries a quality of estrangement—dreamy and possibly subjective, it’s as we’re waiting to find out this story is a figment of Rooney Mara’s medicated imagination.

Soderberg’s interest in characters suffering through financial hardship (Magic Mike), or facing exploitation because of their “roles” in an economy (Girlfriend Experience), loom large here, while his hang-ups about “doing it for money” also make occasional appearances. Screenwriter Scott Z Burns plays out his interest in the Industrial Medical Complex (if with more disgust than was apparent in Contagion), and ultimately provides us one more story about people who represent pawns to an industry that buys and trades in life—in the most civilized way, of course.

Still, for all the genre schizophrenia, the film features a great deal of poetry; one supposes the moral might be that art endures, regardless of how close to death it dances.

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About Sara Vizcarrondo

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Sara Vizcarrondo is a freelance film critic out of San Francisco. She runs Opening Movies at Rottentomatoes, teaches film/media studies at DeAnza college and writes on film for Popdose and The SF Bay Guardian.

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