Steven Soderbergh, 106 mins (15)

Jonathan Romney on Side Effects: Sex, lies and big pharma

4.00

If this ingenious drugs drama is Soderbergh's final film, then he's going out on a high

So, farewell then (supposedly) Steven Soderbergh. America's most prolific film-maker claims that he's hanging up his megaphone. He has only one more movie up his sleeve, for TV – starring Michael Douglas as Liberace, gawd save us – and then we can all catch up with making sense of Soderbergh's implausibly diverse career. No obvious theme or style dominates the output of this hyper-industrious figure, who's been at once a Hollywood player and an independent; a mainstreamer and an experimenter; a director, producer, writer and, don't forget, a cinematographer and editor, under his twin aliases Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard. You'd think he was trying to make things difficult for us.

Soderbergh's career is genuinely more than the sum of its parts, in that his overall adventure as a shape-shifter is more impressive than many of the individual films. He's made sleek entertainments such as the Oceans trilogy and Out of Sight; earnest state-of-the-world dramas (Contagion, Traffic, Erin Brockovich); sombrely eccentric experiments (The Good German, the heroically odd Kafka); solemn labours of love (Che) and flip oddities (the borderline unwatchable farce Schizopolis). He has sometimes been gratingly off-form, but he's one of contemporary American cinema's few devoted risk-takers.

There is, however, a consistently recurring theme. Many of Soderbergh's films scrutinise the ways in which people are subject to, and sometimes contrive to manipulate, the bigger forces that dominate their lives today: money, power, corporate systems, sexual politics. Soderbergh is an arch-observer, in a detached, sometimes studious way: you see his films and imagine his shelves of research files crammed with New Yorker clippings.

Soderbergh now ends his cinema catalogue with a neat tie-up, in that his career is bracketed by two tightly controlled miniatures for four players. He stepped into the limelight with his 1989 Cannes-winning debut sex, lies and videotape; now he leaves it with a story about sex, lies and pharmaceuticals. Side Effects is a sleek, masterfully executed but entirely unflashy entertainment. It's also one of those films that's practically impossible to review because you can't reveal too much of its sinuously devious plot.

The film begins with bloody footsteps on an apartment floor – then flashes back three months to a young woman named Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) visiting her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) in prison. He's due for release, having served time for insider trading. In a model of brisk, clean storytelling, short scenes follow the pair through Martin's release and return home. All bodes well, until Martin announces that he's in on a shady-sounding Dubai deal. Soon after, the haggard-eyed Emily drives her car into a wall.

In hospital, she comes under the care of a sympathetic psychiatrist, Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who tries to treat her with assorted anti-depressives. Some have unexpected effects – Emily sleepwalks, or gets flamboyantly horny. Then something drastic happens, leading us back to those footprints – and we're suddenly plunged into a tense legal drama involving the extravagantly profitable pharma business and questions of medical and corporate ethics. Side Effects turns out to be not quite the story we expected – then goes on to shift shape and focus yet again.

The four leads – including Catherine Zeta-Jones at her most feline, as another shrink – lend themselves gamely to being shifted around like chess pieces. Mara, so glacially spiky in David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, retains some of that nervous intensity in Alice's alert, fragile manner; it's an intelligent, magnetic performance. As for the notoriously erratic Law, he was dreadful in Soderbergh's Contagion but more than redeems himself here as a smart operator digging himself ever deeper as he tries to extricate himself from a compromising situation.

There's an acidic streak of social satire in the depiction of new anti-depressives being marketed as the latest panacea. In this film's world, pharmaceuticals routinely fill American cupboards; every cocktail party conversation is about the comparative merits of Zoloft and Lexapro.

But on another level, the story is about the economy of knowledge – insider knowledge especially, whether concerning finance, drugs or plot twists. Soderbergh and writer Scott Z Burns are wonderfully stealthy about what they do and don't let on, and when. Like the film's doctors with their pills, they administer information in carefully calibrated doses.

The title is apposite, for the story works its own effects on the side. It's forever dropping hints in plain view that we don't pick up on until later; and its characters, and the lives they lead, are not what they initially seem. In fact, Side Effects proves increasingly cynical, its characters less sympathetic, more manipulative than we at first suspect. The film also turns out to be quite startlingly misogynistic, in a Brian De Palma-like way. But it's classy and ingenious, if somewhat pleased with its own deviousness: one of its most shameless narrative tricks involves, of all things, improper use of a truth drug.

What I like about the storytelling is that Soderbergh and Burns don't waste any element: everything has a part to play, and everything adds up, very satisfyingly (if not, some might think, 100 per cent plausibly). Most American mainstream cinema assumes a kind of ADHD condition in the viewer, as if we only go to the cinema to be lulled half to sleep. Side Effects takes it as read that we actually want to stay awake and alert; in its modest way, this is detox cinema of a very bracing kind.

Critic's Choice

Spanish stalwart Luis Tosar plays a psychopathic concierge in Sleep Tight, a highly effective Barcelona-set chiller. Meanwhile, on London's South Bank, the 27th BFI Lesbian and Gay Film Festival steps out in high style with I Am Divine, a portrait of the John Waters superstar and all-time trash icon (Thursday to 24 March).

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat