If Side Effects, an immensely pleasurable thriller centering around psychotropic drugs, really is Steven Soderbergh's final big-screen film, as the director claims it will be, then he has peaked in the Valley of the Dolls.
Scripted by Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote the screenplay for Soderbergh's Contagion (2011), Side Effects, shares, at least at first, the earlier movie's icy fury over the corruption of the medical profession. Psychiatrists dispense SSRIs and SNRIs like Pez candies and are wooed by Big Pharma reps over lunch at Le Cirque. Yet when this initially pointed critique of our quick-fix, highly medicated era becomes, in its final third, a twisty genre exercise — filled with double-crosses, blouses ripped in the heat of passion and hidden microphones — it doesn't lessen the movie's punch. Side Effects is not, in the words of one uncharitable viewer I overheard after a press screening, "a Lifetime movie." This plot-packed last act further highlights our venal age and is performed by actors who, as in the best of Soderbergh's films, revel in playing characters that, even in their villainy and hypocrisy, are never cartoonish.
Side Effects begins with the scene of a crime: a trail of blood on the hardwood floors of a modest Manhattan apartment. The film then cuts to three months earlier as 28-year-old Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) applies lipstick the same sanguine hue as the gore in the prologue. Skeletal, morose and vacant-eyed, she is prettying herself up for a prison visit with her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), who is nearing the end of a four-year sentence for insider trading. Yet Martin's release, rather than revitalizing her, seems to send Emily into deeper despair. A suicide attempt lands her in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), an overextended shrink who supplements his income from his upscale Midtown private practice with hospital work and pharmaceutical consulting, all to keep his family in SoHo-loft luxury.
Prone to uttering mental-health platitudes — SSRIs, Banks explains to Emily, "help stop telling the brain you're sad" — the clinician soon learns more about his patient's history after meeting with her previous therapist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). "I think seeing a man will help her," conjectures this steely shrink, her hair arranged into a severe middle part and perfectly shellacked bun. Those words will have special piquancy in one of Side Effects' sweaty closing scenes, typifying Burns' skill at exposing the banalities that dominate popular mental-health discourse. (Another spot-on example: Siebert's practice in Greenwich, Connecticut, is called the Village Wellness Center.)
As Bates puts Emily on one med after another, each with deleterious results — nausea, no libido, anxiety — he finally prescribes Ablixa, the only fictitious pill in a movie that name-checks a pharmacy's worth of real ones. (Its subway ads broadcast the sunny imperative "Take Back Tomorrow" — words that also greet those who log on to the real website created for this fake drug, tryablixa.com.) Emily's depression seems to be lifting under this drug, though soon one of its unintended effects — episodes of "acute parasomnia" — leads her to commit a very gruesome sleep crime.
"If she goes away, it makes the whole system look bad," one of Emily's lawyers tells Banks as the film transitions from psych critique to procedural. Like Contagion and Magic Mike, Soderbergh's great movie about the flesh trade and the recession from last summer, Side Effects points out, but never didactically, just how broken our systems have become, whether medical, governmental or economic. The meds that everyone seems to be gobbling — from Emily's boss at the boutique graphic-design firm where she works ("I had better luck with Celexa") to Banks himself, who demands that a colleague write him a prescription for Adderall — may alleviate psychological ailments of varying severity, if only temporarily. But this mood-altered reality, Side Effects sharply suggests, can lead only to a further detached, numbed citizenry, all too willing, as the film later shows, to renounce responsibility, to think of themselves as the "victim[s] of circumstance and biology."
Doing typical triple-duty as both editor and cinematographer (using pseudonyms for each title), Soderbergh expertly shoots this narcotic haze differently depending on location: The posher Manhattan spots, populated by those who go running for mother's little helper, are filtered through flattening golds and ambers; emergency rooms and the massive psychiatric center in Ward's Island, in the East River, are imbued with sickly greens and grays.
Color palette isn't the only indicator of class consciousness. "You can go back to talking to rich white people about their problems," Siebert hisses at Banks as the plot strands begin to braid, unravel, then plait again. The insult is a bit rich coming from a shrink who's set up shop in a town teeming with hedge-fund managers. But this scene between Zeta-Jones, perfect in her third film with Soderbergh, and Law, even better here than he was as the fear-mongering blogger in Contagion, reminds us what we'll really be missing if Soderbergh never makes another film: someone to diagnose our national malaise as coolly and seductively as he has.