By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
There’s a big surprise in director Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects” when what looks like it’s just going to be a dramatic meditation on prescription drug abuse segues with a vengeance and opens Pandora’s Pill Case. And now you already know too much. But if you think I’ve left you in the dark, just wait until this smartly written plot starts churning.
At long last, here’s one that’ll have you guessing, as well as make you think twice about your doc’s motivations the next time you are handed a prescription or referred to a, ahem, specialist. We are reminded in no uncertain terms what a strong gang they’ve got, and how the great disparity in knowledge between us and them often puts us at their mercy.
The specific case in point here is Rooney Mara’s depression-plagued Emily Taylor, down in the dumps yet again after her hedge fund type spouse goes to prison for insider trading. Once these high-riding Generation X-ers had it all. Y’know, the country club set in Greenwich, Connecticut, and all that it entails. Well, that’s gone and baby is blue.
Problem is, even after hubby Martin Taylor, portrayed by Channing Tatum, gets freed from the joint, Emily still can’t seem to shake the melancholia. A strange incident in her parking garage that heralds the film’s change in mood sends her to the emergency room and an examination by the attending psychiatrist. Was it an accident, or a try at suicide?
Jude Law’s well played Dr. Jonathan Banks, a prestigious shrink with a markedly compassionate bedside manner, isn’t sure. And while some professionals in both the medical and legal fields feel Emily should be confined to the hospital for treatment and observation, the headshrinker accedes to her request for release, but on one condition.
Namely, she is now the good doctor’s patient, and must see him for therapy on a regular basis. For a while they get along swimmingly, even if Emily is still full of foreboding. But the drug Dr. Banks prescribes brings little or no result. So, at the behest of Emily’s former therapist, stunningly portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones, they try something new.
Emily is soon popping the stuff without compunction. Finally, she’s happy. So what if she’s distressing her husband by playing loud music and dancing up a storm at 3 a.m. Quite coincidentally, we surmise, Dr. Banks, who’s been a bit strapped since his wife lost her job, gets tapped by a drug firm to lend his expertise in return for mucho remuneration.
With that we’re swept into the world of Big Money pharmaceuticals: the politics of test trials, who gets chosen, who doesn’t, and just how whatever is learned is dispensed and to whom. The wonder drug in question is Ablixa, a boutique anti-depressant for which ads of smiling folk are plastered everywhere. It’s all the rage with the wealthy but morbid set.
Boy, this gets creepy sinister. The storyline’s seethingly effective survey of the medical industry’s underbelly not only feeds our worst fears, but offers a very discouraging look at human behavior. Wafted along in its aggressive world, our sense of caveat emptor is put on high alert. Like my rich sister Ann says, “It’s always about the money, Michael.”
Still, because Mr. Soderbergh weaves the tense mystery so well, and since the plot’s presentiments are so utterly outlandish, when the truth ultimately rears its ugly head we are shocked. However, this built-in incredulousness encased in a screenplay filled with more twists and turns than Medusa’s hair after a shower makes things difficult to follow.
Often left to feel as helpless as the victims in the alarming convolutions up on the big screen, our emotive sense is made keener. I know, I know. This review begs for details. Yet, just as Dr. Banks fears that he may be sued for malpractice, I don’t want to be held culpable for ruining the movie’s many surprises. Oh, lest I forget…there’s also a murder.
But please note that, while we can appreciate the grim funhouse ride we’re treated to, it’s not certain, once we know what’s what, if a look back at the clues disbursed along the way would hold water. An awful lot of stuff has to fall into place if the evildoers are to realize those ill-gotten gains, including how the stock market might react to their wiles.
All the same, director Soderbergh (“Traffic”) again offers an entertainingly important muckrake via this cautionary look under the rock of an ailing health care system. While President Obama’s bill is a solid first step to reaffirming what Hippocrates originally outlined around 400 BC, “Side Effects” reminds that we’re still a long way from a cure.
“Side Effects,” rated R, is an Open Road Films release directed by Steven Soderbergh and stars Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Running time: 106 minutes
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