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Review: ‘Side Effects’ shows retiring Soderbergh’s craftsmanship

Since announcing his retirement from feature films about three years ago, Steven Soderbergh has pumped out six movies, each one different from the next. If it’s true that, at 50, Soderbergh is walking away from features (leaving the door open for documentaries, one assumes), we’re losing a guy who can go from sex, lies & videotape to Out of Sight to Traffic to those Ocean’s movies to Magic Mike to Side Effects, with just as many indie films nobody’s ever seen hiding in the shadows. Very few directors have been as diverse and fewer still have been as efficient.

While not a perfect swan song, Side Effects shows just what a craftsman Soderbergh can be. He comfortably wears an Alfred Hitchcock suit, substituting Jude Law for Cary Grant’s ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, and Rooney Mara as every troublesome leading lady. Before the film doinks the landing with a silly, unsatisfying climax, Soderbergh ratchets up the intensity with a lot of twists, overly confined spaces shot at atypical angles and an unsettling score by Thomas Newman.

When her husband (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after a four-year stint for insider trading, Emily (Mara) turns to pills to cope with her anxiety. They don’t work, and following a failed suicide attempt (car + wall), she’s put under the care of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Law). He prescribes Emily a new drug that has some serious unintended consequences (sleep walking + murder).

Side Effects gets particularly Hitchy when Soderbergh invites us closer to Banks’ panic but keeps us at arm’s length from Emily’s real medical diagnosis, even while her own life hangs in the balance at a tabloid-magnetizing trial. There’s also a subplot involving Emily’s previous psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones), which ends up a deflating distraction. But for about 90 minutes, Soderbergh expertly pulls the strings one last time. COLIN BOYD