By Chris Honoré
At first blush, "Side Effects" seems a pharmacological screed, more social commentary than thriller. The hook, however, is the opening set piece wherein director Steven Soderbergh lets the camera move slowly across a blood-smeared kitchen floor, as if a body had been dragged across the linoleum and into the living room. Bloody footprints lead toward a bedroom.
Abruptly, there is a long flashback, going back several months. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is anticipating the release of her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), from a minimum-security prison where he has served four years for insider trading. Emily, who has struggled with bouts of depression, takes Martin home to a spare Manhattan apartment. Both are hoping to resume their lives of affluence and Wall Street excess.
The caveat to their optimism is Emily, who seems fragile and vulnerable, and is stalked by depression, moods she describes as a fog bank engulfing her mind. She soon meets Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). He prescribes one drug after the other (Big Pharma is, of course, a willing co-conspirator), hoping to find the magic bullet that will free Emily of her dark and seemingly self-destructive emotions.
Of course, Emily is not alone as she seeks a better life through chemistry. Friends and workers all have personal anecdotes to share about drugs that help get them through the day or night. With each drug, there are, of course, side effects that must be closely monitored. Emily sleepwalks when taking Ablixa, a new, seemingly efficacious, trendy, designer drug.
And that's the first third of the film. But it's not over until it's over, and a certain edgy creepiness begins to stalk the narrative, abandoning all social-psycho-pharmacological commentary for something far more uncertain and sinister. Soderbergh is masterful as he lets the suddenly convoluted plot unfold, asking the audience to shake off its complacency and pay attention. This is not a docudrama.
Soderbergh has said that "Side Effects" will be his last feature film. Hopefully not. His prodigious career began in 1989 with "Sex, Lies and Videotape" and includes "Pleasantville," "Erin Brockovich," "Contagion" and the compelling "Michael Clayton." His films move along a continuum of creativity and fine storytelling, each, in its own way, a nugget of skillful filmmaking.
As for the cast of "Side Effects," the ensemble is strong and engaging, led by Mara, whose character is ever-elusive, a bird with a broken wing, her porcelain face always inscrutable, often hidden behind a veil of hair. You may remember Mara from the American version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," or the opening setup of the "Social Network," playing Mark Zuckerberg's girlfriend.
A final comment regarding "Side Effects"— you will not be disappointed.
The comedy of Melissa McCarthy is both physical and slapstick, and when the writing is good, she is an inspired performer ("Bridesmaids"). But when the writing is mediocre, despite all her best efforts, she alone can't elevate the story to a sustained, comedic level. This is the difficulty she has with "Identity Thief," which often seems more mean-spirited than funny.
The film uses a familiar trope: the road trip. Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman), a solid family man — two kids, his wife, Trish (Amanda Peet), pregnant — is stuck in a cul-de-sac job working for a large Denver firm. Diana (Melissa McCarthy), in contrast, is a flamboyant identity thief, living the good life in Winter Park, Fla., using Sandy's bogus credit cards.
Desperate, Sandy flies south to find the scammer who is turning his life into a financial train wreck. The idea: lure Diana back to Denver, get a confession, and thereby restore his credit.
Sandy, however, is unprepared for Diana. She looks like a benign Miami hausfrau — wild hair, flamboyant dress, winning smile. Instead, she's a resourceful crook who is not about to head west without a fight. Throw in two thugs looking for Diana, plus a relentless bounty hunter (Robert Patrick), and you have a predictable roadie film that never quite finds its groove.