From A to Z -- from the fictional antidepressant Ablixa to the real drug Zoloft -- Steven Soderbergh toys with drugs, duplicity and their side effects. The message movie grows tiresome in its hammering indictment of Big Pharma's hold on pharmaceutical research and sales, the efficacy and effectiveness of particular drugs, and the medical community's questionable ethics. Then moments before inducing sleep, the social-issue film surprisingly twists into a noir thriller.
Although everyone seems quick to give directors the dubious title of "auteur" and all the credit, the film's distinctive signature belongs to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns ("The Informant!" and "Contagion") as much as to Soderbergh, whose remarkable but schizophrenic body of work stretches from "sex, lies, and videotape" to "Erin Brockovich" and the "Ocean's" franchise, to "Full Frontal," "Che" and "Magic Mike." If connective thematic and formal tissue exists in his films, the links are not readily apparent.
Similar to many film-noir classics, Burns' narrative splinters time by starting luridly in a blood-splattered New York apartment before flashing back to three months earlier. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) prepares for her husband's (Channing Tatum) release from prison after serving four years for insider trading. They have lost everything of the upscale lifestyle that Emily had loved. Close-ups linger on her expressionless face and capture her edginess, conveying a sense of severe depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies. But psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) has a pill -- or two or three -- to stop her brain from sending out so many "sad" signals. The well-intentioned shrink even consults with Emily's previous therapist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Things go terribly wrong.
The victim, the investigator, the femme fatale and the psychopath are central figures in noir's twitchy nervous system. The fun is figuring out which character corresponds to which descriptor. Wearing poker faces, the actors never show their cards.
Somewhat duplicitous himself, Soderbergh credits Peter Andrews, his usual pseudonym, as director of photography. Compositions provide visual clues, such as when a face appears split in a mirror's reflection, implying the character's duality. Moreover, Soderbergh's handheld camera depicts scenes from multiple points of view, gradually revealing startling story information. Situations are not what they seem.
"Side Effects" portrays contemporary society as ruthlessly competitive, greedy and devoid of meaningful values. But as the plot unknots, the film itself feels empty -- an exercise in narrative gymnastics and a misogynist throwback to 1950s noir.