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Side Effects

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Side Effects

Ronney Mara and Channing Tatum in a scene from 'Side Effects.'

There are an awful lot of 'this-would-never-happen' moments in Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects. To name just two: A woman attempts suicide by zooming a car into a wall at high speed, but does not get committed because she tells the doctor she'll be okay and will stop by his office soon. A murder happens with the excuse that the killer was under the intense influence of a prescription drug, yet there's never a significant post-crime medical test to confirm this.
But this is just splitting hairs. Reality isn’t the point here. ‘Oh My God he’s not who we thought’ and ‘She’s not who we thought’, ‘Did she?’ and ‘Is he?’ are the name of this game.

When Martin (Channing Tatum) returns from prison for insider-trading, his wife Emily (Rooney Mara) slips into a deep depression. Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a charming psychiatrist who’s on the payroll of a pharmaceutical company, begins treating her with a new drug, and it seems to be the answer to all Emily and Martin’s troubles. When Emily’s former psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta Jones) enters the treatment scenario, the question of which doctor is out for what, and what is really going on with the patient, gets amped up. And then something goes wrong with the medicine’s side effects. The mounting questions of what is what and what isn’t takes a great roller-coaster ride, through hospitals, prisons, and court rooms.

Side Effects puts the pharmaceutical industry on trial; in particular, a new miracle-working anti-depressant -- a made-up one called Ablixa. Ablixa is not the sunny day that ‘takes back tomorrow’ as it promises. Emily becomes a headline in Ablixa’s possible adverse side effects -- specifically, sleepwalking -- and more specifically, all the bad things you can do when you’re wandering about in that daze.

There are twists and turns of plot, and then some. Everything switches and changes, including the narrative point of view, starting with that of the patient (Mara), then flipping over to the doctor (Law). Everything happens fast. You don’t know who the bad guys are. There’s blood, knives, sex scandals, truth serum, backstabbing, wire-taps. There are jump-in-your-seat, gasp-out-loud moments, snappy dialogue, and a truck load of the preposterous. Side Effects is being heavily advertised as Soderbergh’s final film after an incredible career that began with the success of Sex Lies and Video Tape and such a diverse body of films that include Bubble, Che, Schizopolis, Solaris, and Traffic.It’s a smart way to market a movie, as it’s a great deflector and distractor. Instead of focusing on the film alone, viewers and reviewers are using Side Effects as a point of reference to delve into a retrospective look back at Soderbergh’s filmography.

Leaving the ‘So Long, Steven’ element aside, Side Effects is a good thriller, not a great one. It starts out with a bang, continues its ride on adrenalin, then slowly veers deeper into the ridiculous. If you’re looking for something insightful about the pharmaceutical industry or depression, or a wake-up call to get you to stop taking Ambien, this isn’t it. While there are some instances that touch on the greed and corruption of the pharmaceutical industry, and the issue of ethics (or lack of) in psychiatry and advertising, the pill in Side Effects is just a placebo. This is not about what happens when you take a bad pill. It’s about something else-- the thriller. This sometimes gives Side Effects a hollowness, creating the same emotional flatness the pill-takers in the movie complain about. However, once you agree to the terms that a strong sense of reality is not a side effect of the film, as pure popcorn entertainment, it works.

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