There is a growing obsession for a panacea for all ills that will make life better – or easier at least. Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is a deceptively simple parable that exploits society’s reliance on pills as the basis for this top notch psychological thriller. Emily’s husband has recently gotten out of jail for insider trading and has returned home. Their once perfect life shattered 4 years ago. They are now left to reconstruct the pieces of their once idyllic existence from the ground up. Despite her husband’s release, Emily still suffers from depression. She even has suicidal thoughts. One day while sitting in her car in the garage of their apartment building, she stares at the brick wall ahead of her and drives full speed right into it. Enter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who consults with Emily after her suicide attempt. He’s a psychiatrist and begins seeing her to help treat her depression. He prescribes Ablixa, a new antidepressant drug. Initially she responds positively to the supposed miracle cure. Then she suffers some unexpected, you guessed it, side effects.
Director Steven Soderbergh is working from an original script by frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!, Contagion) Burns wisely captures the zeitgeist regarding our obsession with pharmaceuticals. The medication here in question here is called Ablixa, a fictional drug that could easily be a stand-in for Zoloft or Prozac or any other anti-depressant remedy in a pill. In a brilliant bit of marketing, there’s a clever viral video for Ablixa at http://www.tryablixa.com/ It features an ad that convincingly mimics the soothing music and happy people that are so often used to market medicine like this. You can even take a free evaluation of whether Ablixa is right of you. However the fact that it’s conducted by none other than Jude Law himself should clue you in that this is for entertainment purposes only.
And let’s talk about Jude Law. He’s extraordinary in Side Effects. As Emily’s psychiatrist, his character undergoes a sort of crisis of conscience at first. He’s responsible for prescribing a drug that has negative consequences on his patient’s well being. Just how responsible is he? The film addresses ethics, accountability and the legal system. Rooney Mara is at the center of the drama. I think this is quite possibly the most detailed performance we’ve seen from her yet. She’s a sympathetic soul for whom you feel compassion, but she’s also cold and aloof. She conveys a deeply nuanced character that becomes more complicated as the saga progresses. As Emily’s previous psychiatrist, Catherine Zeta-Jones provides delightful support in a role that taps into the kind of hammy exaggeration she clearly relishes. Channing Tatum is the husband. He’s so busy out trying to re-establish his career again, his presence is less ubiquitous but still crucial to the narrative.
This nifty little thriller is a doozy. A slowly building, twisty little conundrum that exposes layers of intrigue that gradually get revealed just when you think you’ve got things figured out. It originates as sort of a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of prescription drugs, but the screenplay expands on that and then takes things in an entirely different direction. I won’t explain further because that would spoil the fun. While things are unfolding, an almost Hitchcockian scope is revealed. Admittedly, the plot developments really ask a lot of the audience. A healthy suspension of disbelief is required to accept everything that this story puts forth. I might even go so far as to say they’re preposterous. Yet it was so addictive, I didn’t mind any of that. Rooney Mara and Jude Law have an undeniable charisma that seize our attention whenever either one is on screen. I was entranced from beginning to end. They say this is Soderbergh’s “last” theatrical film. That would be a shame. But one thing’s for sure. If that’s really the case, at least he went out with a bang.