It's been a bitter pill to swallow, news that maverick filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, whose "Side Effects" opens Friday, is parting ways with the big screen.
Whether the 50-year-old Oscar winner -- who helped pour the independent film movement's foundation with 1989's "Sex, Lies and Videotape" -- sticks to his retirement plans and redirects his creative efforts toward paintings, theater and the occasional TV project remains to be seen. Whatever happens, let's just revel in the guilty pleasure nature of his "final" cinematic brush stroke, "Side Effects." A doozy of a Hitchcockian thriller with Jude Law, Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones, "Effects" is a go-for-broke valentine to '80s cinematic psychological potboilers such as "Jagged Edge" and "Fatal Attraction." What a treat to see the spirit of these nail-biters revived with such sleek skill and deep affection.
"Effects" pulls us into a twisty, topical web of intrigue entangling a psychiatrist (Jude Law) and his depressed patient (Rooney Mara).
As a director, Soderbergh is in a rascally mood, assuming the role of trickster as he pulls the proverbial rug out from under us time and again. He and recent collaborator Scott Z. Burns -- a screenwriter who also wrote Soderbergh's creepy disease bummer "Contagion" and comedy-drama "The Informant!" about a shaky whistle-blower played by Matt Damon -- dish it out as a piping hot stew. Into the mix, they toss chewy talking points about the pharmaceutical industry and psychiatry. But don't expect a somber, serious-minded film like Soderbergh's compelling "Traffic," a 2000 epic about the futile war on drugs that rightfully won him a best-director Oscar. Even though the business of psychiatry gets elbowed in the ribs, the focus here is to entertain, not enlighten. And "Effects" does that throughout, keeping us riveted even as the story goes progressively more bonkers.
As for the plot, it's a bit like summarizing "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn, this past summer's big shocker of a best-seller. You can only reveal so much without turning into an outright spoiler. My advice: Read reviews afterward to avoid clues that are dropped in willy-nilly, ruining the surprises.
What can be said is that, as with his previous films, Soderbergh dresses up this one in high artistic style (love that slow zoom-in opening shot that establishes the overall tone) and has assembled a well-cast group of actors who've worked with him before.
The underappreciated Law is terrific as Jonathan Banks, an ambitious, impeccably put-together (or so he thinks) New York psychiatrist. His hotshot life goes into a tailspin when he takes on a new patient, the depressed and suicidal Emily Taylor (Mara, who starred in the American version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"). She is grappling with major issues, including the release of her convicted husband (Channing Tatum), who was imprisoned for insider trading. When the despondent Emily fails to respond to therapy and drugs, Jonathan puts her on a new antidepressant. Big trouble results. I won't say more, except that screenwriter Burns puts his shady characters through so many contortions you have to see it to believe it.
Navigating her way through these twists like a pro is Zeta-Jones as Emily's former psychiatrist. It's a melodramatic but apt assignment for the showstopping Zeta-Jones, who plays it with relish -- and a side of ham. Mara, so seething with intelligence and fury in "Tattoo," mesmerizes as Emily, while Tatum, in a small but pivotal role as the cocky husband, continues to impress. Law, meanwhile, is perfect as the confident and slick Jonathan, especially as events around him spin out of control.
Certainly, Soderbergh has made meatier fare. Yet "Effects" turns to be a fine finale, one of his most satisfying features, a crackling contemporary film noir that's performed with punch and smarts.
Steven, just in case you start reconsidering those retirement plans, realize this: There will be a lot of us sitting in the theater eagerly awaiting the curtain to rise on your next chapter in filmmaking.
* * *
Rating: R (sexuality, nudity, violence and language)
Cast: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes