I wish Steven Soderbergh’s new (and according to him, last) film had held to the apparent courage of its convictions past the one hour mark. Up until that time this twisty, subdued thriller had a lot to say about the general state of pill pushing by doctors and physicians for every single thing that may emotionally ail us. In fact, for the better part of that first 60 minutes, Side Effects is more of a straight psychological drama than a thriller at all.
The ever impressive Rooney Mara plays a fragile woman married to hunk of the moment Channing Tatum whom has just recently been released from prison for insider training. Suffering from what appears to be a deep depression, Mara turns suicidal and at times nearly catatonic after Tatum comes home. In their search for some relief, they turn to a psychiatrist played by Jude Law, who first prescribes Zoloft, then a new drug (fictional) called Ablixa. At first the new medication works wonders for Mara. She is more cheerful, present, and finds her libido restored. Just one thing, a side effect of the drug can be sleepwalking. In one scene, Tatum wakes up in the middle of the night to find Mara making breakfast while listening to music at top volume. The couple returns to Law to see if they can address the side effect without taking her off the medication altogether.
Soon after things turn deadly. A murder occurs and Mara’s sanity and the implications of Ablixa come into greater question. Up until this point, the movie is on fascinating ground. Nearly every character in the film is either administering or taking some form or depression based medication. The film is subtle about it. Law gives his wife a beta blocker before a big interview. Mara’s boss recommends a pill that she takes for own troubles to Mara after becoming aware of her struggle. Later on, even the overworked Law asks a colleague to prescribe Adderall for him so he can focus.
The film asks a number of heady questions about the ethics of the physicians who prescribe this medication. About midway through the first half of the film, Law is shown prescribing a trial medication to a client, hooking her in by telling her she won’t have to pay for the meds during the experimental period and won’t even have to report it to her insurance. She quickly signs upon the line which is dotted. What does Law get out of this? A cool $50,000 from the drug makers. The film does a fine job of straddling the line between advocacy of access to appropriate medication for those suffering from mental illness while also suggesting that maybe we are an over–or at least inappropriately–medicated as a society.
So when Mara commits a violent act while being on the recently FDA approved Ablixa, we aren’t sure who–if anyone–should be held responsible. There is much debate over that point for a good portion of the remaining film. The matters being discussed are serious, thoughtful and not without serious repercussions. Law finds his career in the balance during the latter part of the film and Soderbergh never allows us to truly ‘like’ the character. Law’s psychiatrist isn’t exactly the villain, but nor is he the hero either. As good as Law is at playing the unraveling man, Mara is even better. Proving here in a role nothing like her breakout lead in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Mara is an actress to be reckoned with. She has an enigmatic quality that would be perfect for a high-class Roman Polanski film. For nearly the entire duration of the picture you can never quite get a handle on her, not even after the script asks her to accomplish a near impossible acting feat in the last 20 minutes or so. A feat that needs to remain unexplained for those who are reading this and might see it. Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a fellow psychiatrist are fine in their roles, if unspectacular.
There is so much good in Side Effects that the plot conveniences and script contrivances of the last 30 minutes become doubly disappointing. Characters are asked to behave in ways that are far too convenient and the gaps in logic harm the credibility of much of what came before. All of the serious questions about prescription medication and the the patients who receive them are left to the wayside in favor of straight to video antics. Soderbergh has never been a director who makes conventional films, and try as he might, he just can’t make all the red herrings leading up to the finale invisible. Which is a pity, because that first hour is mesmerizing.
On balance, I would still recommend seeing Side Effects. The first three months of the calendar year are a fallow dumping ground for projects that the studios know not what to do with. Side Effects is probably the best movie you will be able to see until spring, it’s just that it could have been so much better.
On a related note, Steven Soderbergh has declared this his final film. While he certainly has the right to do whatever he wants, I hope that isn’t true. Whether it’s putting a fresh spin on genre fare (Magic Mike, Out of Sight) or making challenging art films (Che, Sex Lies and Videotape), Soderbergh is a true artist and Hollywood can use all of those they can get.