The pharmaceutical industry is a shady business. Drug representatives travel to hospitals and conferences with their free pens and pill samples touting the latest wonder drug. They wine and dine doctors so their good times will be repaid through the prescription pad. In the matter of Side Effects, anti-depressant drugs are front and center.
The most famous anti-depressant is Prozac. Now, there is Zoloft, Paxil, Lexapro, Effexor, Celexa, etc… Where do they come up with these names? Each of these brands arrives with its own army of attractive reps spreading the wonderful news and promises that you will never be sad again. Side effects? Perhaps some nausea and dizziness.
Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is a busy man. He is a partner in a respectable psychiatric clinic, pulls night shifts in the local ER diagnosing patients as safe to go home or not, and also rakes in some cash in on the side signing up his patients for new drug trials. After deliberately crashing her car into a cement wall, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), winds up in the ER in the care of Dr. Banks and quickly becomes his most challenging patient.
Emily suffers from severe depression. Paxil doesn’t work, Zoloft doesn’t work, but don’t worry, Dr. Banks has no problem throwing pill after pill at the problem and some other pills on top to counteract side effects like sleepwalking. Why is Emily so sad? Well, her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is fresh out of a four-year prison stint for insider trading and is attempting to reintegrate himself back into society.
Reintegration is a bit trickier for Martin than the average felon though. He comes from the upper crust; his arrest occurred at one of the poshest outdoor lunches imaginable in manicured Greenwich, Connecticut. Emily and Martin lost everything during the trial and now live in a small New York apartment. Dr. Banks does not take all the time he should to ferret out the intricate mental details that may or may not be impacting Emily’s health.
As Emily spirals further and further down the depression scale, Dr. Banks consults her previous psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose most sound advice is to suggest another drug, Ablixa, and hand Dr. Banks a free Ablixa pen. It looks like everyone is on the take in one way or another.
Don’t let the preview fool you though. Side Effects kicks off as a harsh critique and indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, but it abruptly shifts into a complex psychological thriller. The first half is Traffic to the second half’s Primal Fear. Suspicion and mystery engulf Dr. Banks and challenge everything he knows about his situation. Discovering the truth is much harder than jut throwing pills at the problem.
Morally suspect pharmaceuticals and medical ethics are natural targets for director Stephen Soderbergh. He took on all stakeholders in the illegal drug business in Traffic, followed small town justice in Erin Brockovich, and is no stranger to murky mysteries such as Haywire and The Good German. Soderbergh claims Side Effects will be his final film but he has been such an active and creative auteur for the past two decades it is hard to imagine him disappearing completely.
This is Scott Z. Burns’s third film with Soderbergh after The Informant! and Contagion and shows off some truly brilliant plot skills with a few double and triple crosses. If you think through the end too hard, you will notice a plot hole or two, but the joy of figuring out who is playing whom is worth it. If Soderbergh really is walking away from the movie business, Side Effects is a good way to go out.