Twisted ‘Side Effects’

Soderbergh creates a low-key thriller riding the coattails of big pharma

By Lori Hoffman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 14, 2013

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Jude Law in "Side Effects." (AP Photo/Open Road Films)

Photo by AP

Am I the only one who feels sorrier for the dog than the dog’s owner in the popular drug commercial for an anti-depressive? In the happy ending the owner feels well enough to play with her pooch.

What does this have to do with a movie review you ask? My guess is that director Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, Bourne Ultimatum) were inspired to create Side Effects based on their fascination/revulsion with all the drug commercials on TV. These commercials are forced to explain all the possible side effects — anti-depression drugs can make you depressed for example — leading the viewer to wonder why any sane doctor would subscribe any of these medications that sound so dangerous despite the lovely images of happy, cured people.

Soderbergh has created a delightfully twisted, low-key thriller that starts out as a cautionary tale about big pharma and doctors who are beholden to drug companies to hawk their newest cure-all miracle pills, then it makes a fast cut and leaps into a completely different rabbit hole.

Jude Law stars as Dr. Jonathan Banks, a psychiatrist who begins to treat Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), the depressed wife of Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum). She has reason to be depressed since her husband just spent four years in a jail for insider trading which destroyed their life. Dr. Banks tries to help Emily with various drugs, but the Taylors continue to spin out of control dealing with mental instability and before long something happens that brings the police into the story.

To explain how and why would spoil the surprise, and the lovely shift that takes place as Dr. Banks sees his own family life begin to unravel because he has been duped into becoming a pawn in a game he must now fight to win against mounting odds.

Soderbergh’s films tend to create tension in environments that are tethered to real life concerns. His movies don’t feel like big star movies with the exception of his Oceans Eleven films.

Side Effects’ milieu about the exploding pharmaceutical industry propaganda that bombards us with competing drug ads designed to make us go running to our docs for the latest super drug is the “drug war” that affects us much more than the war on illegal drugs. That said, Side Effects uses this drug war as a clever background for a tale that makes an effective red herring out of the big pharmacy plotline and fools us into expecting one sort of movie that becomes something quite different.

Tatum’s role is itself a red herring, and that is all I will say on the subject. Law is the hero of the story, and the fact that our hero is happily taking money from a drug company to steer his patients into a drug trial for profit is more than a little irritating.

We have to root for this guy? Well, yes, we do and that’s another neat twist in Soderbergh’s pretzel logic plot. Law pulls off the task of being a doctor with questionable scruples and Mara, best known for her role in the American version of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, plays her passive victim nicely. Also along with the ride is Catherine Zeta-Jones downplaying her glamorous side as a psychiatrist who knows a lot more that she is willing to reveal.

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