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Anyone who’s been treated for depression—or any chronic illness, really—knows the drill. Here’s a prescription that will help you. You try it, and it may deliver its intended relief of a symptom or two, but it makes other parts of you miserable. So here’s another pill that will offset those issues, but this drug has side effects as well, so you might want to take this, too, to cancel out that. Soon you have a shelf full of meds, and you feel all the worse for it.
“I never want to see another pill again,” Emily (Rooney Mara) says to her psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law), in Side Effects, a thriller from Steven Soderbergh that’s reportedly his final film. If true, the director is going out on top, and what a year and a half he’s had: Soderbergh kicked off this run with another medical thriller, Contagion, before veering off into action with Haywire, then really going off the rails (in a good way) with last summer’s terrifically fun look into the world of male strippers, Magic Mike.
The star of that film (and co-star of Haywire), Channing Tatum, reappears in the slick, sharp Side Effects as Emily’s husband, Martin. When the film opens, Martin’s being released from prison, having served four years for insider trading. Emily, meanwhile, works for a Manhattan advertising agency, and though she’s at first thrilled when Martin comes home, soon a depression sinks in, and one day she decides to drive her car straight into the wall of a parking garage.
Emily survives, but considering she’s a suicide threat, at the hospital she’s forced to talk to Banks, who trusts that the action was more a cry for help and agrees to see her as an outpatient. He puts her on Zoloft, which makes her feel worse, zapping her energy and sex drive and leaving her crying at parties. (“I can’t do this,” she says, a statement that should be familiar to depressives.) Emily mentions that she’s been treated for depression before by Connecticut psychiatrist Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Banks consults Siebert, who suggests he try Emily on a new drug, Ablixa. (Which is obviously fictional.)
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Ablixa seems to be the magic potion, with a few exceptions. Like showing up to work at 4 p.m. (“I got on a train and I just forgot to get off,” Emily tells her boss.) Martin and Emily have a joint session with Banks, with Martin asking if there’s another drug she could try. (“You’ve never had this, Martin, you don’t know what it’s like,” Emily says, another plea/accusation that will make the walking wounded nod their heads.) And then, well, things go bonkers, and to say any more would spoil the film.
Side Effects juggles the issues of the dark side of drugs, the potential for malpractice, and the impossibility catching patient deception. Written by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, The Informant!), the film is a mostly effective nesting doll that unravels layers of a guessing game regarding whom or what to blame, though as with most thrillers, a few details don’t quite add up. (You may not catch the implications of a few images quickly flashed in the late chapters.) It’s not the most Soderberghian of the director’s work (though his genre-jumping makes him somewhat difficult to categorize): His tight, shallow framing is here, allowing you to simmer in every nuance of Emily’s emotional states, but his jazziness is absent, with music that’s low-key when it’s there at all.
Though Zeta-Jones, Tatum, and Law all turn in serviceable performances—delivering neither more nor less than their roles demand—Side Effects is Mara’s showcase. Growing into her beauty (or perhaps just finally looking herself, after playing a college student in The Social Network and a rail-thin, violent punk in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), she’s a captivating presence as Emily, being asked to displaying a gamut of emotions from bliss to emptiness to misery to creepiness. Her limp-bodied depiction of depression is right-on (bested only by Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal in Melancholia); her dead eyes, which occasionally turn on a dime, are cold and frightening. The performance is reminiscent of Edward Norton’s in Primal Fear.
With all the twists, it’s difficult to know which of the film’s characters to root for. Yes, there is a clear good guy at the very, very end, or at least one who’s been absolved of guilt. But you don’t need a hero, or even someone simply to feel sorry for, to be taken in by Side Effects. Though, like Emily, you may never want to see another pill again.