We live in the age of antidepressants. Since the public launch of Prozac back in 1987, dozens of new medications have hit the market, pills with names like Zoloft, Effexor and Seroquel that promise to burst the dark clouds of anxiety and sadness that hover over so many of us. These drugs have been a lifesaver for millions, but could there also be a dangerous flipside to medicine on the cutting edge? Dig around online and you’ll find stories linking these powerful pills to hundreds of suicides and murders. Though the connection between the drugs and tragic events is more tenuous than many believe, the idea that antidepressant use (or misuse) can lead a person to hurt those closest to them is one that has penetrated mainstream consciousness.
Enter Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike, Ocean’s 11, Erin Brockovich), a director who has never shied away from controversy or experimentation in his films. For roughly the first half of his latest, Side Effects, Soderbergh channels the ongoing conversation about the safety of antidepressants into a potent psychological thriller about a young woman (Rooney Mara) who is slowly coming unglued and the psychologist (Jude Law) who believes that better living can be achieved through chemistry. Unfortunately, the twists of the second half of the film don’t live up to the drama of the first, turning Side Effects into a cheap and silly big-screen version of a bad Law & Order episode.
Mara stars as Emily Taylor, a young woman upon whom life continually takes a dump. Taylor was living in a Connecticut mansion with her adoring husband (Channing Tatum), hosting lavish lunches and waiting for the right moment to drop the news that she was with child. But then her entire life was upended, with hubby convicted of insider trading and carted off by the Feds, leaving Emily broke and homeless, the stress of which led to a miscarriage.
Side Effects opens with Tatum’s character being released from prison and attempting to put his life back together. Though this should make Emily happy, it only serves to send her into a tailspin of depression that culminates in her driving straight into a wall in an apparent suicide attempt. The hospital psychologist on call that day is one Dr. Banks (Jude Law), who consults with Emily and decides that she should begin seeing him regularly for counseling. She eagerly agrees.
As the sessions progress, Dr. Banks seeks out Emily’s old therapist from Connecticut (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who fills him in on his patient’s backstory and suggests a new medication called Ablixa that might be just the thing. Emily starts taking the drug and finds it effective but with some troubling, ahem, side effects, primarily sleepwalking. Well, not sleepwalking so much as sleep-dinner-partying. That’s no biggie for Dr. Banks, who prescribes another drug to combat all that nighttime wandering. Emily ends up in a fog so deep that one day she commits an unspeakable act that leads to more than just psychological problems.
To reveal more about Side Effects would be inappropriate, as the power (or lack thereof) of the film is dependent on the many plot twists that make up the third act. I bought none of it, and found the turn into traditional (and goofy) thriller territory to be profoundly disappointing. The scuttlebutt online is that this is Soderbergh’s last film as a director. If that’s true, it’s a colossal shame and no way for one of our most interesting filmmakers to go out.
The plot defects are not the fault of the actors, who perform admirably (Law in particular is very good) despite being given one ridiculous scene after another to get through. I also appreciated the way Soderbergh shoots New York locations without highlighting the standard landmarks, giving the film an off-kilter, familiar-but-foreign feel that’s fitting for the material. That the skill of the filmmakers is evident throughout Side Effects just makes the final product that much more underwhelming.
Fans of absurd melodrama and plots that twist for the sake of being twisty will probably enjoy Side Effects. I could see watching it on cable while stuck inside on a rainy afternoon and chuckling all the way to the credits. But mocking laughter isn’t one of the side effects that Soderbergh was going for.