The more Steven Soderbergh talks about his plans to retire, the more he keeps shooting off in fresh, bold directions as a filmmaker. (Is all that retirement talk therapeutic for him? Perhaps other filmmakers should try it.) Soderbergh’s entertaining new movie, Side Effects, is a psychopharmacological thriller about a woman named Emily who is functionally depressed — a tough quality to dramatize effectively in a movie. Fortunately, she’s played by Rooney Mara, who has mastered the trick of how to act recessive and threatening at the same time. In her first leading role since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Mara transforms herself yet again, this time into a very different specimen of seductive, damaged will.
Emily, an upper-middle-class wastrel-princess, wears her hair in lank, droopy bangs that she uses as a curtain to hide behind, and her scratchy, joyless voice expresses her spiritual drowsiness. Her behavior, likewise, is a bit off: Her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum, appealingly lunkish), has just gotten out of prison after serving four years for insider trading, and she’s trying to be there for him. But she’s remote, disaffected, lost in her private ozone. She saunters around in a semi-daze, stumbles late into work, and at one point climbs into a car and zooms ahead at full speed, crashing into a parking-garage wall marked ”Exit.” This would seem to be a suicide attempt (though she does buckle her seat belt), and it’s no surprise when Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), the gentle psychiatrist she meets in the emergency room, wants to put her on antidepressants.
It’s been 25 years since the dawn of the Prozac revolution, and in all that time Hollywood has never made a feature about the place antidepressants have come to occupy in our culture. There’s a good reason for that: How do you dramatize the subtle shifts in internal states that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can cause? Soderbergh, working from a script by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), has devised a way. In Side Effects, he turns a cleverly overwrought, at times knowingly pulpy scenario into a pop projection of our most lurid fears about antidepressants. Emily, a veteran of Zoloft (which made her dizzy and muted her sex drive), requests the latest miracle pill, a drug called Ablixa. Banks prescribes it, and for a while it does wonders. But it has a curious side effect: She begins to walk in her sleep. And then, in the middle of her sleepwalking, she does something very, very bad. It becomes a tabloid news story, with Emily as the poster girl for all that can go wrong when you’re using meds to shift the DNA of how you act and, just maybe, who you are.
Could this really happen? The teasing premise of Side Effects is that the possibilities of reckless, even disastrous, behavior are built into the mood-swing unpredictability of antidepressants. There’s some real-world evidence for this, and the film asks: If people act badly while on these drugs, who’s responsible? The patients themselves or the drug companies and psychiatrists? Soderbergh tweaks the issue of everything we don’t really know about antidepressants — and why our society is now, one could argue, addicted to them. Banks enjoys a $50,000 bonus in consulting fees (his powwows with drug execs are the stuff of high-thriller satire), and Law’s acting is perfect in its eager, deluded benevolence. He plays Banks as a patsy, a symbol of a psychiatric establishment that’s become a tool of the pharmaceutical industry.
Side Effects was shot on digital video that makes it look as if we’re peering through dirty glass, but it’s still a lavishly dread-fueled suspense movie full of twists, reversals, double crosses, and dangerous liaisons. Soderbergh wants to do for SSRIs what Hitchcock did for psychoanalysis in Spellbound, and for a while he does. I loved the scene in which Banks administers truth serum to Emily, only to uncover a truth he didn’t expect. But I wish that Soderbergh had taken his own movie more seriously. Catherine Zeta-Jones’ role as a sultry shrink who looks like she’s about to strip off her lab coat for an ’80s music video is borderline ludicrous, and the film’s theme of money-as-the-ultimate-drug is disappointingly rote. Side Effects is mostly a good Saturday-night movie, but by the end, it’s caused a few unintended side effects of its own: a bit of head-scratching, and a giggle or two of disbelief. B+