*** (out of four)
For anyone who struggles to focus their attention on a movie—that should include all 23 people who saw Al Pacino in last week's embarrassing “Stand Up Guys”—“Side Effects” is just what the doctor ordered.
Sure, a thriller involving the dangers of prescription medicine and insider trading may seem as current as a documentary about Napster. But director Steven Soderbergh, who says he’s retiring from movies later this year, can make almost anything sizzle and stick—most recently proven with “Magic Mike,” the stripper movie that’s actually a funny, perceptive story relevant to anyone who has ever realized something intended to be temporary is slowly becoming permanent.
In “Side Effects,” Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) has spent 80 percent of her five-year relationship with Martin (Channing Tatum) waiting for him to get out of jail after his insider trading conviction. You'd think his release might quiet the demons in her head—Emily previously was treated by a physician played by Catherine Zeta-Jones—but her husband's return still finds her seeking prescriptions from Dr. Banks (Jude Law) to treat her depression.
Depending on the medication, her condition seems to morph into glassy-eyed emptiness or energized sexual rejuvenation. Then, something terrible happens that Emily says she doesn't remember (hello, “Sleepwalk with Me”), perhaps due to her pills (a long way from “Love and Other Drugs”).
Written by Scott Z. Burns (“Contagion,” “The Informant!”) and tilted with angles coated in Soderbergh's traditionally stylish cool, “Side Effects” may not pack the urgent, forbidden temptation and emotional engagement to warrant the “Hitchcockian” label. Still, sleek, mysterious performances and a mostly crafty script prevent the twistiness from becoming Shyamalanian.
Multiple characters note the apparent simplicity and happiness presented in drug ads. When a woman in a field smiles next to a dog, under a banner that says, “Take back tomorrow,” who wouldn't want to feel better in one day? The engine that drives “Side Effects” toward something bigger and better than the folly of an easy fix is Soderbergh's (“Sex, Lies and Videotape,” “The Girlfriend Experience”) long-time fascination with the line between interiors and exteriors, both geographical and physical.
“How's your head?” Banks asks Emily after she intentionally smashes her car into the side of a parking garage. “How was it before you hit the wall?” A person's intent and state of mind is the greatest question mark in “Side Effects,” which would have delivered an even stronger shiver had the answers proved elusive.
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