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"Side Effects," the latest work from the seemingly inexhaustible Steven Soderbergh, starts off telling one story only to abruptly shift gears in order to tell a completely different one. The trouble is that the first story is by far the more interesting while the second just becomes more implausible with each passing scene. The result is a film that is watchable enough but never quite lives up to the promise of its intriguing opening.
As the film opens, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, divested of her "Dragon Tattoo" accoutrements) is anxiously awaiting the return of husband Martin (Channing Tatum) after a four-year prison stretch for insider trading. The two still love each other and Martin is making a sincere effort to get them back to where they were before his incarceration. But with the pressure of his return, unemployment and money woes, Emily's struggles with anxiety and depression land her in the hospital.
There, she is treated by psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes a wide variety of the usual pharmaceutical suspects — Zoloft, Effexor, Wellbutrin — to control her symptoms. But while she experiences many of the common side effects (sleepwalking, altered sex drive), none of these medications help her. Banks consults Emily's former therapist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and she suggests trying a new drug on the market called Ablixa (not to be confused with the antidepressants Abilify or Celexa).
It is at this point that the story takes its big unanticipated twist, though viewers who recognize the source of the film's opening shot may guess what's coming. Suffice it to say, Emily's use of Ablixa has unanticipated side effects not only for her but for Martin and Banks, and the story becomes a puzzle in which nothing is quite as it seems. In other words, if you want to see this movie and know someone who loves to blurt out spoilers, stay away from them until you have seen it for yourself.
The early scenes of "Side Effects" are fairly spellbinding as Soderbergh quietly but effectively puts viewers into the anxious, jagged mindset off someone who feels out of sync with the world around her and helpless to do anything about it. At the same time, he and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who previously collaborated on "The Informant!," and "Contagion") offer a cuttingly satirical glimpse at an overmedicated world in which doctors serve as paid mouthpieces for pharmaceutical companies and everyone has a recommendation for some pill or another that will presumably smooth over pesky traces of everyday existence.
This stuff is all great but it all gets shoved to the side once the focus of the story shifts. Without going into too much detail, it's as though Burns took all the melodramatic plot developments he smartly left out of his screenplay for "Contagion" (another film with a dim view of the pharmaceutical industry) and stuffed them into "Side Effects" instead. The initially fascinating characters soon find themselves prisoners of a narrative that gets more unlikely with each passing scene until the movie devolves into something virtually indistinguishable from a episode of one of the lesser "Law & Order" spinoffs.
And yet, even though "Side Effects" largely lacks the distinctive personal touch that Soderbergh has brought even to such nakedly commercial propositions as "Ocean's Twelve," "Haywire" and "Magic Mike," he keeps things humming along in a reasonably smooth and efficient manner. Serving once again as his own cinematographer (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), Soderbergh has an arresting visual style and gets good performances from his lead actors. If nothing else, the film offers Channing Tatum another chance to prove that there is a strong and capable actor lurking beneath the hunky heartthrob exterior. This may not go down as one of Soderbergh's better films by a long shot but his efforts make it far more watchable than it might have been in lesser hands.
"Side Effects" has enough good things going for it to keep it from being dismissed, but its blaws are enough to prevent a wholehearted recommendation. Soderbergh, who has been averaging 1-2 movies a year for the last few years, has hinted that he will be retiring from feature filmmaking (or at least taking a long hiatus) in order to explore options like cable television (where his next effort, a Liberace biopic starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, will be premiering this spring) that would allow him to do projects that fall outside of the Hollywood blockbuster mentality.
I have no doubt of Soderbergh's sincerity, but I suspect his "retirement" will last about as long as Frank Sinatra's did. If nothing else, I find it difficult to believe that a filmmaker whose career has featured as many high points as anyone else working today would want to pull a Gene Hackman and go out with something that is nowhere near his best work, as the actor did by apparently bowing out with the aggressively mediocre "Welcome to Mooseport." My guess is that Soderbergh will take a break from filmmaking for a couple of years, let the batteries recharge and then return anew with the kind of complex and intelligent entertainments that he is capable of delivering, while "Side Effects" will be thought of as a minor side effect to an otherwise sterling career.