Side Effects (2013)

*. I think there should be a special category critics have for good little movies. Sometimes a good little movie takes off and becomes a blockbuster, but at heart it’s still just a good little movie. I think The Sixth Sense is a perfect example. Other good little movies are personal projects taken on by big stars or directors, usually shot on a low budget outside the major studios.
*. I’d call Side Effects an example of this latter kind of good little movie, though the fact that it actually cost $30 million to make pushes the envelope. It’s also hard to understand such a budget. What did they spend all that money on? It looks like Hitchcock meets mumblecore.
*. Maybe the cast got paid. There are some big names, though Rooney Mara dominates. Catherine Zeta-Jones is the ice queen. Channing Tatum’s part could have been played by almost anyone, as might that of Jude Law. I have to say Jude Law has never grown on me. I’m not sure I’ve liked him in anything all that much, and he’s only adequate here.
*. But Mara is great as the sleepy-eyed heroine, or femme fatale, or whatever you imagine her to be. I think both the Mara sisters are great actors and I’ve liked them in everything I’ve seen them in. Which, unfortunately, means liking them in some very average movies. But they’re both great at evoking feelings of sympathy you can’t trust.
*. I really like what Wesley Morris says about Mara in his review of Side Effects, so I’ll quote it here: “Rooney Mara might be too inscrutable to be a star. Her face masks everything — intent, affection, human warmth, respiration. But she’s not a zombie, either. She’s inscrutable for the camera. To watch her in David Fincher’s version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects . . . is to be psychologically seduced. It’s not that you wonder what’s going on with her. It’s that you wonder what else is going on. She’s a director’s actor that way, a performer a filmmaker can trust to do fascinating things — not simply to hold a close-up but to complicate it.”
*. But as I say, the rest of the cast, and Law in particular, can’t really play with her. Maybe there’s something about a British accent that’s so reassuring we have a hard time being convinced that the speaker is coming undone. Nor does the script or Soderbergh’s direction help much. Basically this is a movie that builds slowly up to one twist that, while decent, isn’t that surprising or credible. Meanwhile, Soderbergh doesn’t give the proceedings any of the style notes that they need. At times this feels like a thriller that is trying hard not to thrill us, or build up any suspense at all. The dreary lighting throughout doesn’t help. Everything is played in a muted key.
*. Still, it’s a good little movie. David Thomson thought it “an ugly mess, a rotten film” but I wonder how much of that was the result of overly high expectations. Despite the talent assembled, it’s not trying to be a great movie. Instead it’s a tidy B-picture. It was also supposed to be Soderbergh’s last film, but retirement didn’t take. Something about the story here seems to have inspired him, as he was back five years later with Unsane, another movie about being sane in an insane place. And vice versa.

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