'Side Effects': Insightful look at pill-popping culture

Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum star in

Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum star in " Side Effects," directed by Steven Soderbergh, opening February 8, 2013. Photo Credit: Open Road Films

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'Side Effects" isn't your typical medical thriller.

The film, directed by Steven Soderbergh

and opening Friday, stars "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's" Rooney Mara as Emily, a young woman taking antidepressants to deal with stress. Her Wall Street hubby (
Channing Tatum

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), imprisoned for insider trading, has just been released, and they're trying to remake their lives. Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones are psychiatrists with comforting tones and handy prescription pads. Emily starts taking a new, experimental drug. Then comes the frantic 911 call. "Someone's been murdered!"

In past medical thrillers, a victimized patient or doctor often battles some health crisis -- and conspiracy -- as in "Contagion" (Matt Damon, 2011), "Extreme Measures" (Hugh Grant, 1996) and the granddaddy of them all, Michael Crichton's classic, "Coma" (Genevieve Bujold, 1978). Poor Bujold, pleading to no avail, "Somebody's putting people into comas!" Hospitals, governments and ego-driven docs were always up to no good.

But in "Side Effects," the villains are less clear. What is clear is that in today's pill-popping culture, we're all accomplices in our own demise. "I think everybody who sees this movie -- when they later see ads for Lunesta, Celexa... whatever is being sold, they're gonna realize, 'My God, these things are all around us,' " says Dr. Sasha Bardey, a psychiatrist and co-producer on the film, and consultant to the Nassau County Department of Mental Health, Chemical Dependency and Developmental Disabilities Services and the mental health court in Hempstead.

Bardey, who attended medical school at Stony Brook University, met screenwriter Scott Z. Burns some 10 years ago. The two brainstormed ideas, inspired by news accounts of dangerous behavior linked to prescription drugs. Rare, but real, Bardey notes. He later consulted on sets, props and wardrobe to get the film's look -- from doctors' diplomas to pill bottles -- just right.

Pills get lots of screen time. The film is littered with references to Prozac, Wellbutrin, Zoloft, Effexor. And the ads for the film's fictional drug, Ablixa, seem so real -- "Ask your doctor about Ablixa today... and take back tomorrow" -- you may chuckle. (Moviegoers at a recent screening did.)

Good -- we'll make better health care choices if we're more aware of influences around us, Bardey says.

As for whodunit, well, that's the thing with "Side Effects," he adds. When it comes to today's obsession with pills -- for sleep, weight loss, depression, you name it -- "we're all kind of the bad guy."

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