Side Effects (2013)

If you are taking any type of medication for depression, don’t use a sharp knife to chop up a salad if standing near a spouse.

Rating: Though it matters not where or when you see it, this film will demand your full intellectual attention. If you are emotionally tired when it begins, save the whole experience for another day.

Side EffectsSide Effects is actually a mysteriously intriguing film for completely misleading reasons. First and foremost, it is an old-fashioned murder mystery wrapped in a promotional campaign centered on the excesses of the pharmaceutical industry in our country today. While I am still wrestling with the experience, I felt the movie worked primarily because of a great cast acting within the framework of an innocent victim story.

In a recent interview, Director Steven Soderbergh flatly stated that this may be his last film. Quite frankly, I can’t believe he was remotely serious. Maybe he contracted the deadly disease that was the center of his last film, Contagion (2011). Hopefully, it’s not that serious, and may be nothing more than temporary side effects from using medication that resulted in a film of the same name.

But setting Mr. Soderbergh’s probable exhaustion aside for a moment, he again collaborates with writer Scott Z. Burns to bring us a film that would have made Mr. Hitchcock either angry or proud. Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor, a 28-year old woman who is about to welcome her husband (Channing Tatum) home from prison where he has spent four years for insider trading crimes. As she recently displayed in the English version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), she is one of those compelling actresses, much like Jennifer Lawrence, who excels when her character is bruised and battered.

Here, suffering from what seems to be profound depression as she tries to adjust to her husband’s prison release, she attempts suicide by violently ramming her car in to a parking garage wall. Or was it suicide?

Confined to a hospital, she comes under the psychiatric care of Dr. Jonathan Banks, played by the immensely talented Jude Law. Suffice it to say that Mr. Law’s diagnosis is based in part on the personal recommendations of Ms. Mara and her prior psychiatrist.

Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the past psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert, and she has immense secrets that she is not about to voluntarily reveal. Mr. Tatum dies suddenly as a result of being viciously stabbed, Ms. Mara is arrested and ends up confined in a mental institution pending treatment, and Mr. Law’s career and marriage quickly go up in flames. In losing everything, he remains on a quest to figure out who did what and why, and he once again proves why he is such a splendid performer.

While not critical in and of itself, I felt a tad bit had when comparing Side Effects to the previews. I anticipated a hard look by Mr. Soderbergh at the pharmaceutical industry and the role it plays in keeping millions of Americans medicated daily while our government stays actively involved in the so-called “War on Drugs”. As a criminal defense attorney, I am keenly aware of the large number of Americans incarcerated yearly for their involvement with marijuana and cocaine while companies like Eli Lilly keep their reputation intact despite paying a large fine for their involvement in the Zyprexa controversy.

Don’t get me wrong, as much of Mr. Burns’ script deals with the massive use by psychiatrists and physicians of prescriptions like Zoloft and other drugs used to treat depression. However, the subject itself is basically a canard where potential side effects of these medications are used as a ruse to hide criminal activity.

Regardless, the energy of Ms. Mara and Mr. Law ends up sucking you into a rather diabolical web. Just look at Mr. Laws’ career. He was brilliant in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001); Road to Perdition (2002); Cold Mountain (2003); The Aviator (2004); the Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey, Jr. (2009 and 2011) and the above-mentioned Contagion. Good grief, his performance was the only thing that made last year’s regrettable Anna Karenina remotely watchable.

Mr. Tatum is not in the film long, but it is nice to see him play his “loveable man” role with some profound flaws. As for Ms. Zeta-Jones, she is a bit more effective than her sad performance in the recently released Broken City, although I suspect that her casual performance here will soon be forgotten also.

While I am hopeful that Mr. Soderbergh will not drift away slowly into artistic darkness, I do wish that he would get recharged and bring to the screen edgy films like Traffic (2000); Ocean’s Eleven (2001); The Informant (2009) and the overlooked Haywire (2011). On the other hand, I’d like to think that his time away from the screen will enable him to recharge and avoid such tragic nonsense as the Ocean’s sequels (2004, 2007); Bubble (2005) and The Good German (2006).

Finally, take a chance and go see Side Effects. Even if it leaves you mentally exhausted, take a couple Ambien and you’ll sleep like a baby.