Steven Soderbergh, rightly considered one of Hollywood's smartest movie makers, is at his cleverest in Side Effects, a canny, cunning big-idea thriller in a minor key, an engrossing zeitgeist whodunit about Wall Street, Big Pharma, prescription drugs and the power we give psychiatry and psychologists.
Put simply, it's about a death, perhaps caused by an under-tested depression drug.
Channing Tatum plays a Wall Street type just getting out of prison for securities fraud. Rooney Mara (of the Hollywood adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) is Emily, his seemingly overwhelmed wife, a morose beauty burdened by the responsibilities she now carries (she's the one working) and the memory of the life they lost.
Her attempted suicide-by-car puts her in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a seemingly sincere psychotherapist who must come up with a drug — on the fly — that keeps a distraught but apparently sane Emily out of the hospital.
We'll do this and then that drug, he suggests. And if one or the other causes problems, we'll prescribe something else to counter those. How about this new thing, the one she's seen ads for on TV, Ablixa?
Side Effects nicely describes the slow-moving fog of depression as waves of it overwhelm Emily. And it plays like a case study in her treatment by drugs — her downcast behavior replaced by other manifestations of "not quite right." Suddenly, she has energy and can function at work and in her marriage.
Then, a crime happens and we wonder if it was the drug, the doctor (legally paid by the pharmaceutical company to test the drug on patients), the patient's predisposition (Catherine Zeta-Jones plays her previous doctor) or something else that led to tragedy.
It's a film that sees quiet menace in the everyday. Soderbergh elegantly suggests that if you're suicidal, every moment behind the wheel, every meal prepared with sharp knives has the threat of an impulsive, irreversible act.
Soderbergh, working from a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), transforms this tricky mystery into hints of something trickier — Wall Street machinations, the murky relationship between psychotherapists and the courts, between doctors and pharmaceutical companies.
Law uses his years of playing cads as useful baggage here, giving suspicious layers to this married, overextended workaholic. Tatum is never more believable — no matter what the character — than when he's in one of Soderbergh's films (he was in Magic Mike and Haywire). He should try his best to prevent Soderbergh from going through with his announced retirement from filmmaking.
Mara retains the touch of "unstable" she wore so well in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Is she sleepy-eyed or psychotic, deeply depressed or poker-faced?
Side Effects loses some momentum in its third act, piling on implausibilities as it grasps for a satisfying conclusion. But even then Soderbergh never lets things slip from the implausible to the impossible.
4 stars out of 5
R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language. Open Road. 1:45. Fayette Mall, Hamburg, Movie Tavern, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester, Woodhill.