'Side Effects' keeps you guessing
Steven Soderbergh, rightly considered one of Hollywood's smartest movie-makers, is at his cleverest in “Side Effects,” a canny, cunning big-idea thriller in a minor key. Put simply, it's about a death, perhaps caused by an under-tested depression drug.
Channing Tatum plays a Wall Street type just getting out of prison for securities fraud. Rooney Mara is Emily, his seemingly-overwhelmed wife, a morose beauty burdened by the responsibilities she now carries and the memory of the life they lost.
Her attempted suicide-by-car puts her in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a seemingly-sincere psychotherapist who must come up with a drug — on the fly — that keeps a distraught but apparently sane Emily out of the hospital.
“Side Effects” nicely describes the slow-moving “fog” of depression as waves of it overwhelm Emily. And it plays like a case study in her treatment by drugs. Suddenly, she has energy and can function at work and in her marriage, where “new energy” translates to a vigorous sex life. But she's up at all hours, sleepwalking. She can't remember things.
Then, a crime happens and we wonder if it was the drug, the doctor (legally paid by the pharmaceutical company to test the drug on patients), the patient's predisposition (Catherine Zeta-Jones plays her previous doctor) or something else that led to tragedy.
It's a film that sees quiet menace in the everyday. Soderbergh elegantly suggests that if you're suicidal, every trip down to the subway, every boat ride in the harbor, every moment behind the wheel or meal prepared with sharp knives has the threat of an impulsive, irreversible act.
Soderbergh, working from a Scott Z. Burns (“Contagion”) screenplay, transforms this tricky mystery into hints of something trickier — Wall Street machinations, the murky relationship between psychotherapists and the courts, between doctors and pharmaceutical companies.
Law uses his years of playing cads as useful baggage here, giving suspicious layers to this married, overextended workaholic. Tatum is never more believable — no matter what the character — than when he's in a Soderbergh movie.
And Mara, trussed up to resemble a young, troubled Kristin Scott Thomas, retains the touch of “unstable” she wore so well in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Is she sleepy-eyed or psychotic, deeply depressed or poker-faced?
“Side Effects” loses some momentum in its third act, piling on implausibilities as it grasps for a satisfying conclusion. But, even then, Soderbergh never lets things slip from the implausible to the impossible.
Roger Moore reviews movies for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.