Side Effects ✮✮✮1/2
by Glenn Lovell
Talk about getting your money’s worth. Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects” is three terrific films in one ‒ a disquieting psychological case study, a timely exposé of our narcotized, pill-popping society, and a trippy conspiracy thriller along the lines of a couple of Michael Crichton bestsellers.
And darned if this genre-blending concoction doesn’t deliver on each level. I’d go further; it’s Soderbergh’s most assured work since “Traffic.” I found it fascinating and unnerving in a sober, understated way, which in the end made it all the more effective.
“Side Effects” ‒ starring Rooney Mara as a distraught New York wife and Jude Law as her quick-to-prescribe psychiatrist ‒ is so good it almost makes up for Soderbergh’s last outing, that cynical, let-’em-eat-cake monstrosity “Magic Mike.” Before retiring from filmmaking, the director has said he’d like to try his hand at every conceivable type of story: With “Magic Mike” he proved he could be just as superficial and trashy as the run-of-the-mill Hollywood hack.
Having gotten his version of “Flashdance” out of his system, Soderbergh, who prides himself on spanning the arty and the commercial, has come up with a fusion of minimalist drama and Hitchcockian mystery (his slow-pan opening is a direct quote from “Psycho”). His camera glides through a swank apartment, picking up a trail of blood. We then flash back three months to the anything but rosy portrait of the tenants, Emily (Mara) and Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum).
Martin is just getting out of prison after serving a four years for insider trading, and the dutiful Emily is waiting at the prison gate. She’s understandably depressed, distant. So it comes as no surprise when she attempts suicide. Her British-born psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks (Law), asks, “Did you try to hurt yourself this morning?” Emily responds, “It was a mistake ‒ I lost it for a minute.”
Under Banks’ care, Emily is prescribed a cocktail of mind-messing sedatives, including Zoloft and a new antidepressant still in the trial phase called Ablixa. The combination causes somnambulant trances and crying jags during the day, sleepwalking at night. “Every afternoon at three there’s this poisonous fog bank rolling in on my mind,” she complains. When, inevitably, tragedy strikes, Banks becomes front-page tabloid fodder and, for an egregious conflict of interest (he’s being paid as a consultant for Ablixa) and other sins, the target of an FDA ethics probe.
How did he get into such a fix? To find out if he “screwed up” or was a patsy with a prescription pad, Banks, in the last third of scenarist Scott Z. Burns’ fiendishly crafty story, trades his couch-side manner for Sherlock Holmes sleuthing; he re-traces Emily’s descent into a suicidal funk, second-guesses his own diagnosis … interviews Emily’s last psychiatrist (played with icy efficiency by Catherine Zeta-Jones).
It’s unlikely “Side Effects” will find many fans among pharmaceutical reps or uptown psychiatrists, who are shown to care more about cushy consultancy deals than their patients’ well-being. Little matter. If you can get behind a “hero” who is both an opportunist and a coward ‒ Law courageously refuses to sugarcoat things ‒ you’ll be rewarded. Soderbergh’s latest is, in a word, addictive; it’s rigorously constructed yet viewer-friendly, ripped-from-the-headlines relevant but unabashedly melodramatic. And once again the director has hired one of the best cinematographers in the biz ‒ himself. Mirror reflections, claustrophobic shots and off-center framing are used as effectively here as they were in “Rosemary’s Baby” to suggest creeping paranoia. Kudos also go to composer Thomas Newman (“Skyfall”), whose tinkly xylophone theme perfectly complements Emily’s jittery nerves.
Warning: “Side Effects” may have side effects, including acute insomnia and anxiety attacks upon entering a drugstore or psychiatrist’s office.
SIDE EFFECTS ✮✮✮1/2 With Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Directed by Steven Soderbergh; scripted by Scott Z. Burns. 106 min. Rated R (for violence, language, slight nudity)