Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is a grippingly “Hitchcockian” movie, but not in the manner of, say, Brian De Palma, who blithely appropriated the master’s narrative elements and visual techniques for ’80s films like Dressed to Kill and Body Double. Soderbergh’s picture is something else, a bracingly lurid tale of a man trapped in a thickening web of circumstance—the sort of story that Hitchcock might well have wanted to tell himself. In the late director’s absence, Soderbergh, who over the course of 24 years has demonstrated a rare facility in a wide array of genres, proves to be just the man for the job.
Jude Law, in a tightly contained performance, is Dr. Jonathan Banks, a transplanted English psychiatrist with a thriving Manhattan practice, a happy marriage, all the emblems of professional success. But his world begins to crumble after he takes on the case of a young woman named Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, freshly inventive yet again), who has just driven her car into a wall in an apparent suicide attempt. Emily has a brief history of clinical depression, triggered by the arrest of her wealthy husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), for insider stock trading. She was previously treated for her condition by a Connecticut shrink, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). After Martin’s imprisonment, Emily tells Banks, “It got very hard to imagine a future—and that’s depression, right?”
Banks, a great believer in psychopharmacology, begins treating Emily with a relatively new antidepressant called Ablixa. Then Martin is released from prison. He comes home one day and finds Emily in the kitchen chopping vegetables with a strange intensity; she turns to her husband with knife in hand and stabs him to death. Afterward, she tells police she remembers nothing of this, that she must have been sleepwalking—which turns out to be a side effect of Ablixa.
Tried for murder, Emily is judged to be not guilty by reason of insanity, and is consigned to a mental hospital. But Banks has also been a person of interest in the case. (He’s just a little bit dodgy, having contracted in the past with big drug companies to take part in testing new meds.) There’s an ethics investigation, and soon the New York Post is calling him the “Pill Killer.” Banks’ life is collapsing all around him. Then he determines to fight back—to get to the bottom of whatever it is that’s going on.
This is the kind of movie about which the less is said, the better. Soderbergh proves to be a virtuoso at tightening the screws of suspicion and perversity. (He’s working from a script by Scott Z. Burns, with whom he also collaborated on Contagion and The Informant!) He unveils the movie’s many revelations at a perfect pace, and finesses the inevitable implausibilities of the thriller genre with great skill. The effect is engrossing from beginning to end.
Soderbergh says this is his last movie; he’s determined to retire and devote his time to painting, among other things. Will this prove to be just another showbiz fake-out? Let’s hope so.
The wonderful Melissa McCarthy’s very heavy build will probably always have to be a substantial facet of the characters she portrays—there’s no way to ignore it. But in the 2011 Bridesmaids, her overweight Megan was a woman who refused to allow her girth to interfere with a determination to enjoy life on her own high-spirited terms. Unfortunately, in the new Identity Thief, McCarthy is basically used as a walking fat joke, a pathetic loser with no hope of ever surmounting her size. She’s the butt of endless unpleasant gibes, and the movie’s stretch for happy-happy at the end can’t wash away the sour taste of all that’s come before.
Directed by Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) and scripted by Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part II), the picture gives us McCarthy as a slobby con-woman named Beth, who specializes in identity theft—acquiring the credit-card information of faraway dupes to finance a lifestyle of heavy boozing and unfortunate sartorial choices. Her latest victim is Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman), an amiable Denver account executive with—for Beth’s purposes -- a perfect unisex name. When Sandy suddenly finds his credit card confiscated after attempting to charge some gas, and is then besieged by a herd of unknown creditors demanding payment for charges he never made, he’s baffled. Then, when local cops tell him the only way to straighten things out is to find whoever it is that’s taken over his identity and bring that person back to Denver, he reluctantly sets out for the Florida town to which all signs point—the town that Beth, of course, calls home.
When Sandy catches up with Beth—a woman with no principles but a wicked inclination toward throat-punching—he determines to haul her back to Denver by car, and make her face the consequences of her criminality. Along the way we’re treated to much whining and waddling around and belly-flopping by McCarthy, and all the usual stoic reaction shots that are a Bateman trademark. Before long, Sandy and Beth are being pursued by an ornery skip-tracer (Robert Patrick) and a pair of drug-gang enforcers (improbably beautiful Genesis Rodriguez and rapper T.I.—who deserves bigger and better roles). When Sandy and Beth reluctantly begin to bond, we fear the worst sort of goopy plot twist, which soon enough arrives.
McCarthy can’t help but be funny—she’s a winning comic actress. But the consistently unflattering light in which she’s presented here isn’t a lot of fun. Bateman has an effective straight-faced charm, and Eric Stonestreet, as a sizeable barroom lothario who develops the hots for Beth, brings a welcome jovial innocence to the proceedings (before being buried in a bare-ass sex scene you’re unlikely to forget, try as you might).
The movie plays out like an over-budgeted sitcom. There are some genuine laughs, and I can see the film passing for enjoyable among some viewers. Which is fine. Afraid I’m not among them, though.