(by Dustin Putman
"Side Effects" tears out of the gate like it's got something to prove—namely, about the seriousness of depression and the potential dangers of a pharmaceutical market oversaturated with prescription drugs. In her first role since playing anarchic protagonist Lisbeth Salander in 2011's English-language adaptation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Rooney Mara stars as Emily Taylor, a New York-based graphic designer who has waited patiently for four years for husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to be released from prison. He was charged with insider trading, but now he's out, eager to make amends for his mistakes and build up a new prosperous business. Emily should be thrilled to be reunited with Martin, but she is overcome by feelings of fear, anxiety and hopelessness. When she ends up in the hospital after driving her car straight into a cement wall, she is treated by psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who is quick to prescribe her an antidepressant. When that one doesn't seem to work, he switches her to a relatively new drug called Ablixa. This decision will spell all of their undoings—or so it seems. Article continues below
Heavy-handed though "Side Effects" appears to be, there is no denying that at the onset, the picture is an effective portrait of a young woman suffering from a depression she can't seem to escape from, like "a poisonous fog bank rolling in," as several characters describe the illness, quoting William Styron's "Darkness Visible." The director is Steven Soderbergh (2012's "Magic Mike"), arguably the most eclectic filmmaker working today, and the screenplay is credited to Scott Z. Burns (2011's "Contagion"), whose job it is to pull the wool over the audience's eyes. Right from the opening scene, the camera panning through a home, its cozy design and unopened birthday gifts ripped apart by bloody footprints staining the apartment floors, it is obvious something is going to go very wrong in the lives of Emily and Martin. From there, the narrative travels back to three months earlier. When the pieces are ultimately filled in and the timeline joins back up with the prologue around the 45-minute mark, the violence that ensues is scandalous but not particularly surprising for anyone who's already been around the proverbial cinematic block. With Dr. Banks and his practice suddenly caught in the middle of a high-profile murder case, he begins his own obsessive investigation, hoping to uncover the hidden truth that will clear his name.
The film, segueing between deceptive character study, heavy melodrama, sordid mystery-thriller, and obvious message movie, is far from elegant in the way that it points the finger at prescription drugs and the potentially hazardous reactions they can cause, painting a picture that is strictly black and white. It also narrows in on Emily's delicate emotional state, pleading for the viewer's sympathies and getting them. Even if one doesn't know what it's like to be clinically depressed, everyone should be familiar with feelings of sadness and despair. Emily's inability to feel comfortable in her skin and life is tackled with a rare maturity early on, and it's sometimes difficult (in a good way) to watch. Imperfect but involving to a point, the picture's abrupt shifting of gears in the third act reveals that it's all been a ruse to shield the movie's baser, pulpier motives. This turning of the screws may fool a number of viewers, but the surprise is less satisfying that outright offensive, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns exploiting a serious subject that, as it turns out, he had little to no interest of actually tackling after all.
Rooney Mara gave a near-disastrous performance as lead heroine Nancy in 2010's "A Nightmare on Elm Street" remake, but has since impressed in a roster of diverse roles, from 2010's "The Social Network" to 2011's "Tanner Hall" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." As Emily, Mara delves believably into the mind frame of a woman barely hanging on emotionally. Though portrayed as a victim in her own right, the particulars of what she's choosing not to immediately reveal do a disservice to the character. In lieu of adding complexity, the part abruptly crumbles under its own gimmickry, guided not by Emily's human nature but by the demands of a screenplay as deflating as it is sneaky. As Dr. Jonathan Banks, who sees not only his profession but his relationship with his wife (Vinessa Shaw) put into jeopardy over a demonizing blame game, Jude Law (2010's "Repo Men") is on point throughout. In supporting turns, Channing Tatum (2012's "10 Years") fulfills his duties as Emily's husband, Martin, but it's a small part that doesn't give him much to do; Ann Dowd (2012's "Compliance") brings pathos and reluctant devotion to Emily's kindly but in-the-dark mother-in-law, and Catherine Zeta-Jones (2013's "Broken City") brings a slippery ferocity to Dr. Victoria Siebert, Emily's former Greenwich Village psychiatrist who isn't quite as smart as she thinks she is.
"Side Effects" is akin to a house of cards, ornately designed and solidly constructed until it all comes crashing down, evaporating into nothingness. Beginning as an urgent indictment and culminating in a silly, sudsy about-face that means very little and is sure to produce groans, the film betrays and cheats itself out of a point. It has been said that director Steven Soderbergh intends for this to either be his final movie, or at least his last before going on a self-imposed hiatus. Let's all hope that the latter option is the right one, because the trivial, would-be sensationalistic "Side Effects" is in no way, shape or form a testament to the greatness Soderbergh is capable of.