Nothing Is As It Seems In ‘Side Effects’


Side Effects is a fascinating movie with more twists and turns than a grand slalom ski run. Steven Soderbergh, a director who often creates fascinating puzzles of his movies, has done it again. Nothing in the film is exactly as it seems. Forget the trailers being shown on television; they give an impression that is completely different from the actual film. This is a psychiatric thriller that delves into problems we now face because of our increasing reliance on a whole series of medicines that provide artificial calm and happiness.

One problem with reviewing a movie like this is that revealing a lot of the plot takes away from the movie experience. The movie focuses on four major characters and their interactions. Martin (Channing Tatum) is a financier newly released from prison after serving four years for insider trading. His wife, Emily (Rooney Mara), is a mess psychologically, having lost her most prized possessions because of the penalties. After going to a party where she sees herself as broken, she drives her car into the wall of a parking garage and, while hospitalized, is assigned to psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). He starts her on a regimen of regular antidepressants, which are not able to solve her problem. Her former psychiatrist, from when she and Martin lived back in Connecticut, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), suggests a new drug, Ablixa, with which she is affiliated. From the start, it works brilliantly. Emily is happy; her sex life, which had dragged, is great.

But then the side effects kicked in. That’s where I will leave the story for you to discover. The center of the story is not on what exactly happens because of the drug, but on responsibility. There are behavioral changes caused by drugs that have side effects that might be worse than the original problem. Even in our real world, there are a handful of drugs where death can be a side effect. Doesn’t it thrill you to take something for a really bad cold whose side effects might include pneumonia, bronchitis and a host of other fun diseases? Some TV commercials spend almost as much time rushing through horrific side effects as they do in telling us how their medicine will improve our lives.

And what of the doctors who prescribe them? Dr. Banks is a man who enjoys the finer things of life, and a large honorarium will help keep his sexy and expensive wife happy. And all he has to do is prescribe a new drug, using it as part of a so-called controlled study. And, of course, Big Pharma is always a good target. But this is a movie review, not a critique. Soderbergh remembered that point, which is why this is a far better movie than a movie like Love and Other Drugs.

The cast is very, very good. Rooney Mara is excellent in a textured, nuanced performance as the tormented wife. She manages to be at least somewhat sympathetic even at her worse moments. Tatum is good as the husband. But Jude Law is the central character of this drama. He is flawed but still a very decent man. When the drug turns out to be flawed, he gets most of the blame. Watching his torment is difficult; it is clear that he has been played by the companies, but on the other hand, he is not above using them. And Emily has a few interesting twists as well.

Soderbergh has stated that this will be his last theatrical film for a while. He is currently doing a biofilm about Liberace starting Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. But, working with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, he demonstrates why he is considered one of our most intelligent directors. Nothing we see is exactly as it should be; the film shifts gears constantly. At times it is a murder mystery, then it is a condemnation of the big pharmaceutical companies, then it is a scathing look at how a variety of ethical people can be bought fairly readily. And, finally, it is a morality play.

The start of the year is usually a rotten time for movies. The really good ones come out at the end of the year, and those deemed not great follow while we hold on until the summer blockbusters. But this little movie is excellent; I was spellbound.