Movie review: 'Side Effects'

Posted 1:16pm on Thursday, Feb. 07, 2013

Remember when Tom Cruise and Matt Lauer got into a tussle on national TV over the use of psychiatric drugs?

That argument -- whether to medicate or muddle through -- and the industry that has mushroomed around it are at the heart of Steven Soderbergh's twisty and taut, if ultimately preposterous, medical thriller Side Effects. If this is indeed Soderbergh's final theatrical film, as the director has said he's going into semi-retirement, it's not such a bad way to go out.

Rooney Mara (from the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) is Emily Taylor, a once proud member of the one-percent who found herself cast out when her wheeler-dealer husband (Channing Tatum) was sent up for insider trading. Several years later, he gets out of jail only to find her battling a depression so deep and consuming that she tries to kill herself by ramming her car into a parking-garage wall.

Enter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a successful and overscheduled Manhattan psychiatrist who puts her on a new pill that, according to its ads, turns your life from bummer to blissful in one swallow. That it also appears to rev up Emily's moribund sex drive seems to make it even more of a wonder drug.

But then there's that nasty side effect: sleepwalking with sharp instruments. Then who is responsible when something goes wrong? The patient? The doctor? The system that pushes the medication on the public? And just what is Emily's former psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) up to in all this?

What happens after that -- when both Emily's and Banks' lives are turned upside down and everyone from the justice system to Big Pharma is implicated -- is where Side Effects gets increasingly loopy, if never less than entertaining. Written by Scott Z. Burns (with whom Soderbergh has worked before, on The Informant and Contagion), Side Effects is akin in mood to Michael Clayton and Arbitrage, two other thrillers about corporate-class malfeasance.

Side Effects shows off Soderbergh's style to good effect without either the silliness ( Haywire) or pretentiousness ( The Girlfriend Experience) of some of his other films of late. It's certainly a shift from his last project, the rambunctious and straightforward Magic Mike.

Soderbergh gets good performances from all of his stars, especially Mara, who comes off as just a big bundle of sad.

The problem, though, is that Soderbergh and Burns may have concocted one twist too many, pulling the rug out from under the original premise in the process.

But maybe Soderbergh wants to say goodbye to Hollywood in a way that sums up much of his work, both brilliant and boring, over the years: by being just a little too smart for his own good.

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