‘Side Effects’ May Vary

Side Effects (allegedly the very last movie from director Steven Soderbergh if you don’t count that upcoming Liberace thing on HBO) looks like it’s going to be a ‘70s-style message picture about the increasingly casual use of psych meds in modern medicine. There’s an incredibly effective website (TryAblixa​.com) promoting the fictional medication that’s at the heart of the movie. Plus Soderbergh made a pretty good issue film (Contagion) about the rapid spread of disease in a connected world.

The movie sure feels like it’s going to be an indictment of a “better living through chemistry” medical system. Characters chat amiably about whatever brand of anti-depressants they’ve taken and which drug they swapped in to counteract the side effects. Psychiatrists casually take consulting fees from major drug companies and recruit test subjects by offering them free treatment.

When Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) has trouble adjusting after her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after doing time for insider trading, she gets a wide variety of treatment from Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). Once Banks decides to prescribe the new miracle drug Ablixa promoted by Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Emily’s life takes a tragic turn and, boom, she’s on trial for murder.

Here you’ve got an interesting movie: widespread use (and abuse) of medication that affects the brain in ways that we couldn’t even imagine 30 years ago, a profit-driven pharmaceutical system that offers doctors enormous incentive to promote lucrative new patent-protected medications and patients well-versed in the latest thing courtesy of massive advertising campaigns.

That’s an interesting movie, one full of issues worthy of the sort of discussion Soderbergh generated with Traffic, his Oscar-winning film about the drug trade. When I first saw the promotional materials for this film, I thought it might be a good fit for the site because the medications used to help people deal with stress and psychological trauma are a subject of great interest to our readers.

Except Side Effects is not that movie. About halfway through the film, we’re suddenly watching a noir thriller about a ruined man desperate to clear his name. Jude Law’s Dr. Banks comes off like a (possibly) less crazy version of the paranoid journalist he played in Contagion. Since you can’t really discuss any more plot points without ruining the surprises, let’s leave it at this: if you enjoy conspiracies and complicated plot twists, Side Effects definitely delivers. Just try to see it before everyone else ruins the surprises for you.

Rooney Mara’s performance suggests she has a career in leading roles besides Lisbeth Salander. Catherine Zeta-Jones definitely pays her director back here for casting her in career breakthrough role in Traffic. Channing Tatum may not be the most obvious choice to play a corrupt Wall Street trader, but he delivers a strong performance that continues his run (21 Jump Street, Magic Mike) of surprisingly excellent movies.

Side Effects: not a straight exposé about the corrupt world of psychiatric medication. In fact, it’s possibly a movie that lets the whole profession off the hook. Definitely worth a discussion once this thing comes out on DVD and we can stop worrying about spoilers.

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