Steven Soderbergh — who’s indicated, not for the first time, that he’s tired of filmmaking and may retire — has had a most unusual career. His persistent ennui has led him to all manner of narrative experiments, benighted projects like “Schizopolis” and “The Good German” that were doubtless more involving for him to make than for audiences to experience.
But, as successes like “Erin Brockovich,” “Out of Sight” and his new film, “Side Effects,” demonstrate, when Soderbergh is willing to play it on the square, he’s as good as anyone at bringing intelligence and verve to straight-ahead material.
As its title indicates, “Side Effects” is nominally about what can happen when prescription medications like antidepressants go haywire, leading those who’ve been taking them to very much wish they hadn’t. But anyone expecting some kind of “Menace in the Medicine Cabinet” exposé that savages our pill-popping, Pharmaceutical Nation culture will have to look elsewhere. That world is only a savvy backdrop for what screenwriter Scott Z. Burns has accurately characterized as a twisty adult thriller in the vein of “Double Indemnity” or “Body Heat.”
In some ways, the less said about “Side Effects,” the better. It’s got a deliciously complex plot that works best if experienced in an information blackout.
Starring the capable quartet of Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum, this clever bag of tricks is made with so much cinematic skill it makes implausibility irrelevant. What happens on screen is unapologetically far-fetched, but it unfolds with enough panache to make turning away out of the question.
Burns, whose credits include Soderbergh’s earlier “Contagion” as well as Paul Greengrass’ “The Bourne Ultimatum,” has come up with a smart and streamlined neo-noir script that never stays long in one place but finds time for atmospheric lines like, “Imagine if everything you ever wanted turned up and called itself your life.”
Deserving full credit for getting us to go along for the ride is Soderbergh, who, as is frequently the case, did not stop at simply directing but also shot the film under the Peter Andrews pseudonym and, as Mary Ann Bernard, edited the results.
Here, helped by first-class acting across the board (Carmen Cuba did the casting), Howard Cummings’ effective production design and Thomas Newman’s insinuating score, Soderbergh sets his tale in a world of relentless, inescapable unease.
Front and center in this scenario is Emily Taylor, played, in her most effective starring performance yet, by Mara, an actress of equal parts feral intensity and impenetrable mystery, who displays a wider array of emotions than she was able to in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
Emily is introduced visiting her husband Martin (Tatum), a once-wealthy Wall Street type who’s about to be released after four years behind bars because of an insider-trading conviction.
Martin’s discharge goes without a hitch, but adjusting to a new life in a Manhattan apartment way smaller than their old Greenwich, Conn., mansion reactivates the depression that first plagued Emily when her husband’s prison term began.
Those black moods, “like a poisonous fog bank rolling in,” lead Emily to crash her car head-on into the wall of her apartment building. Her injuries are not life-threatening, but hospital rules mandate that she see a psychiatrist, and in walks Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law).
Friendly, approachable, understanding, Banks is a caring therapist who so worries about Emily he convinces her to become his patient. He’s also a doctor who believes in the power and efficacy of drugs, even giving his wife, Deirdre (Vinessa Shaw), a beta blocker when she’s anxious because the pill “makes it easier to be who you are.”
Not surprisingly, after consulting with Emily’s previous therapist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Zeta-Jones), Banks wants to put Emily on an antidepressant, and when the usual suspects like Zoloft don’t do the trick, a new drug called Ablixa gets the call. (Though the drug is fictional, a promotional website for it has been constructed, complete with the slogan, “Ask your doctor about Ablixa today and take back tomorrow.”)
At first, the drug seems to be working well but then, in the blink of an eye, it isn’t, and all hell breaks loose. It would ruin the fun to detail exactly what kind of hell, but rest assured this top-notch cast has great fun working out all the fiendish ramifications of this potboiler plot. If this does prove to be Soderbergh’s final film — and I wouldn’t hold my breath — he picked a heck of a one to go out on.