The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor, a young woman who grapples with mixed feelings over her husband's (Channing Tatum) release from prison for insider trading. Rather than enjoy the restoration of her marriage, Emily feels increasingly depressed, anxious and fragile, culminating with an act of self-inflicted violence.
At the hospital, she encounters Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who becomes her personal psychiatrist and begins to treat her condition with antidepressants. Once she starts taking the pills, Emily seems to realize how entrenched they've become in American life. Everywhere, she sees soothing commercials for the latest SSRI, and apparently every other person she meets has a drug to recommend. The audience also learns that Dr. Banks' practice is steeped in drugs: He gives beta blockers to his wife (Vinessa Shaw) without prescription, he oversees drug trails with handsome recompense from Big Pharma, and he makes small talk about pills with fellow shrinks (including one played by Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Antidepressants can often improve people's lives, and Dr. Banks often makes reassuring statements like, "It doesn't make you anything you're not; it just makes it easier to be who you are." Emily's medications subject her to grogginess, low libido and bouts of sleepwalking, with the camera's shift from fuzziness to sharp focus mirroring her mental state. The film's disquieting sense of unease turns into outright shock with a plot point I won't spoil, but changes the film's dynamic and raises debates about medication, personal responsibility and medical ethics.
Side Effects could be a companion piece to Soderbergh's underrated disease-disaster film Contagion, another thriller penned by Scott Z. Burns that explores American crises against a backdrop of medical issues and health institutions. Soderbergh frequently excels at cultivating mood and exploring aspects of the contemporary zeitgeist, with Contagion revealing how quickly panic can spread in the Internet age. Unfortunately, Side Effects' sinister atmosphere gives way to contrived, wearying plot mechanics that feel increasingly sleazy. It ends up a different film than the one you signed up for.
Soderbergh recently turned 50 and has announced plans to retire from making theatrical feature films, with Side Effects his last major release. (He has a Liberace biopic with Michael Douglas coming up on HBO.) If he never directs for the big screen again, Side Effects will prove to be an unsatisfying swan song. Soderbergh has been such an inventive and prolific director, directing about two dozen features since 1989's sex, lies and videotape, that he's earned a break. Perhaps a little time off will be just what the doctor ordered.
Side Effects. 2 stars. Directed by Stephen Soderbergh. Stars Rooney Mara, Jude Law. Rated R. Opens Fri., Feb. 8. At area theaters.
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