‘Side Effects’ – a movie well worth taking in despite side effects

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

We all know those commercials for the miracle pill that’ll cure what ails you.

Some actor is lying around barely able to pet the dog. Then a handful or so of pills later, he or she is up and about, tossing Frisbees on the beach, embracing everything good and healthy.

But as we vicariously enjoy life as a day at the beach, the narrator’s voice gets just a shade more business-like. What follows is an endless litany of potential side effects.  Everything, it seems, from difficulty sleeping to your arm falling off.

Oh, and one more possible side effect. No biggie, really. But we do have to say that, well, sometimes, a side effect is….

Um, Death.

But whose death?  That’s just one of the many clever little twists strewn throughout Stephen Soderbergh’s new thriller, “Side Effects.”

Emily (Rooney Mara) thought she had her life all worked out. Greenwich, Connecticut, mansion. Handsome wealthy husband. Pricey friends. Pricey cars as birthday presents.

But by the time “Side Effects” gets going, that’s all in the past. Hubby Martin (Channing Tatum) has just spent four years behind bars for insider trading. And that Greenwich manse? Traded in for a small Manhattan apartment.

Don’t even bother to ask about the pricey friends and pricey cars.

No wonder Emily is depressed and spends time at work swapping medication anecdotes with her boss, as if they were comparing new diets or Prada handbags.

But then Emily rams her car into the wall of a parking deck.  It’s gotta be a call for help, right? And who better to answer that call than kind, upstanding, empathetic Dr Banks (Jude Law).

It turns out Emily is no stranger to pills and depression. She was treated in Connecticut by the classy and respectable Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The two shrinks run into each other at a convention and Dr. Siebert wonders if Emily would do well on this brand-new drug Ablixa (totally fictional, but Soderbergh has set up a fake web site, complete with dreamy images and upbeat slogan:

“Take Ablixa today and take back tomorrow.”)

Further, the pharmaceutical company is offering a cool $50,000 to doctors who agree to test it on their patients. Emily’s tried ‘em all so why not a fling with Ablixa? Or so figures Dr. Banks who becomes increasingly central to the ethical questions posed by the picture.

“Side Effects” is not a perfect thriller. It falters pretty badly toward the very end, and Soderbergh plays a little fast and loose with some assumed cultural prejudices that not all of us find appealing.

Still, with all the junk floating around theaters now, “Side Effects” is like a lifeboat right off the side of the Titanic. It deserves a B+ for effort and the cast may even edge into A- territory — especially Law, who is settling into a comfortable character-actor niche, and Mara, who translates her “Dragon Tattoo” sexual tension into the sort of inviting frailty that always ends up exploding in someone else’s face.

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