By Joan Ellis
Side Effects plays games with us. Steven Soderbergh knows well that audiences love to figure out the director’s game plan and with that done, to identify the good guys and the bad. That’s what thrillers are all about.
This movie proceeds for a nice long while at a reasonable clip before plunging at the speed of light into a bewildering confusion of betrayals and changes in direction. You will be fooled.
The first third of the story is a gumbo of today’s medical malfeasance, the veritable unleashing of prescribed pills to cure the perceived ills of our nation in the contemporary culture of instant cure. Anxiety? Depression? Try Zoloft, or Prozac, or Ablixa. If one doesn’t work, the other will. Even as Dr. Banks (Jude Law) reels off the possible side effects to his patient, we squirm at their similarity to the side effects that follow the ubiquitous ads on our own television screens – “nausea, muscle weakness, palpitation, and thoughts of suicide.”
In happier days, Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) were married for what seemed like a few minutes before Martin was handcuffed and hauled off to the slammer for insider trading. Four years later, Emily stands at the prison gate waiting for her husband’s release. A problem looms: Emily is depressed. After a stint with therapist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), she shifts to Dr. Banks who turns on the flow of antidepressants. “What will this one do?” Emily asks. “It makes it easier to be who you are,” and “It tells the brain to stop telling you you’re sad.” Fatuous words, easy fix.
It can be said that Jude Law gets himself into one great big mess. Watching him try to find his way out is good, tense fun. Rooney Mara, navigating both real life and therapy, is extremely clever at operating in all kinds of mood swings. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a somewhat mysterious role in the story, a commanding presence, but exactly why is she here?
Jump forward to the central question of the movie: When a patient does a bad deed, is it a legitimate defense to claim it was a side effect of the medicine? What is the legal responsibility of the doctor for the results of his prescription? Is the patient a criminal or a victim of the medical treatment? Steven Soderbergh loves this kind of thing. He raises big questions for our contemporary culture (see Contagion) by folding them into a fictional thriller riddled with twists that unfold in due course; no spoilers here.
What I can say with certainty is that you will be scared witless more than once; you will be angry by turns at the drug industry, at doctors, therapists and Wall Street. But beyond the emotions stirred by a medical thriller, you will probably wind up thinking seriously about the dangers of the prescription drug culture that prevail today.
That’s what Steven Soderbergh does best.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.