As far as narrative goes, Steven Soderbergh has never had much of a voice - so he borrows them from other directors. Sure, there’s always been a strong undercurrent of pessimism in his work, and a constant anti-capitalist sentiment along with it. But for the most part, his pictures are genre appropriations: "Contagion" is his disaster film; "Haywire" his direct-to-video action movie; "Ocean’s" his formalist Hollywood entertainment; "Out of Sight" his Tarantino film; "The Girlfriend Experience" his Godard movie.
If I’m being generous, Side Effects is his Hitchcock - I mean, it opens with a super slow pan into a window and a cut to an unexplained bloodstain; how obvious can you be? But still, despite all the Hitchcock tropes - sexual secrets, duplicitous plans, femme fatales, climactic scenes (more like explanations) that overdose on exposition - more often than not, it feels more like low-end Paul Verhoeven.
Much like in "Traffic," Soderbergh aims to dramatize every part of his chosen culture - that being the pharmaceutical drug industry - through character, from the suppliers to the pushers to the takers. Rooney Mara, with her rosy cheeks and blank stares and depressive clichés, is the patient. Overstressed, undersexed, and seemingly ambivalent about her Hubby’s (Channing Tatum) impending release from prison for insider trading, she doesn’t act depressed so much as she doesn’t act at all (she’s a cipher in the first half-hour, dead eyes and all, to an almost laughable extent. And in a movie this silly, that’s the perfect approach.)
She starts to "get better" thanks to her docs - Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jude Law; the latter sincerely vomiting out advertising copy like "[the pills] don’t make you someone you’re not; they just help you to be who you are" to his friends and family (Soderbergh’s main subtextual goal seems to be to satirize the transparent arrangements between shrinks and Big Pharma,) Mara shifts from one antidepressant to the next, makes faux-suicide attempts, and generally acts like she’s in the "Before" half of a Zoloft commercial.
All the while Tatum seems a bit worried by the whole display - that is, until they have a post-pill-popping sex session (one that’s contrasted quite dramatically with a lifeless hookup that follows his release from prison; a tryst that - for obvious reasons - wraps up pretty quickly.) "Whoever makes these pills," he notes in a beefcakey moment of post-coital bliss, "is going to be very rich."
The rest of the "social commentary" is equally sardonic. A coworker catches Mara dosing outside, and quips, "I did better with Celexa." Tellingly, this got the biggest laugh in the auditorium where I saw the film, and it’s not even a joke.
But still, this picture is more about carnal cinematic pleasures than it is about deconstructing America’s drug habit. I wasn’t joking about the Verhoeven connection - less than pharmaceutical commentary and Hitchcockian suspense, you should come into "Effects" expecting sexual sleaze, as well as clichés that fulfill ugly prejudicial stereotypes while satirizing them at the same time (it’s the Soberbergh way - he can be an old-school reductionist and progressive at the same time.)
The key to the movie is hidden in a shot that takes place right after its biggest twist: the camera does an antiquated, emphatic dolly roll toward a bottle of prescription pills, as if they were the smoking gun in a murder mystery. Yes, drugs are a part of Soderbergh’s text, and his subtext - but really, they’re just the MacGuffin in a very silly mystery.