Everyone's on something in "Side Effects," Stephen Soderbergh's thriller about white-collar Manhattanites and their psychopharmaceuticals. Effexor and Celexa are so over -- the latest wonder drug is a little pink pill called Ablixa, though it may not be quite what the doctor ordered.
The guinea pig is a depressed young wife, Emily (Rooney Mara, hollow-eyed), who's been patiently waiting for Martin (Channing Tatum) to finish his four-year sentence for insider trading. But after Emily attempts suicide, her new shrink, Jonathan Banks (a slippery Jude Law), prescribes Ablixa on the advice of a colleague (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Granted, Banks is taking $50,000 from a drug company to dole out freebies, but his intentions seem pure. Unfortunately, Ablixa's side effects include sleepwalking and, apparently, murder.
It's ripe material for Soderbergh, whose films often explore how things and ideas take on the value of currency, be it sex ("Magic Mike"), success ("Full Frontal") or even health ("Contagion"). In "Side Effects" the currency is drugs, though these in turn purchase something like happiness: Banks calms his anxious wife (Vinessa Shaw) with beta-blockers, and as Emily's case overtakes his life, he begs a co-worker for Adderall.
"Side Effects" has the sleek, chic look of a Soderbergh film -- cool colors, seductive lighting -- but the script, by frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns, is disappointingly clunky. What begins as an intriguing, if unsubtle, critique of societal drug dependence devolves into old "Law & Order" episodes (case law, system gaming) and even older noirs (offshore accounts, incriminating photos). It also features some steamy-lensed titillation that's way beneath Soderbergh's class.
"Side Effects" could be the final film from Soderbergh, who is either retiring or just taking a break, depending on which interview you read. It seems unlikely, though, that such a great director would end his career with this sleeping pill.
PLOT A doctor prescribes a new drug to a fragile young woman, with unintended results.
RATING R (language, sexuality)
BOTTOM LINE Steven Soderbergh's meds-fueled thriller starts out strong but devolves into crude plot twists and salacious sex. Ultimately, it's a depressant.