May Cause Greed, Lust or Retirement

The marketing campaign for “Side Effects,” Steven Soderbergh’s tight and twisty new pharma-caper, includes aWeb site for a fictitious antidepressant called Ablixa. You can tell the site is fake because the “professional consultation” it offers is provided byJude Law, who plays a psychiatrist in the film. But the embedded commercial is a perfect parody of something that has become very familiar in recent years: a vague and seductive montage of sad and happy scenes accompanied by new-agey music and, interrupting the inspiring sales pitch, a sotto voce recitation of warnings and possible complications.

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  • Side EffectsFEB. 8, 2013
  • Where Pills and Crime Collide

Mr. Soderbergh, who serves as his own cinematographer (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), cleverly evokes the style of these ubiquitous drug advertisements in the movie itself. We spend most of the first half-hour in the company of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young New Yorker who lives in a gray fog of hopelessness. The Ablixa ad represents this condition with cartoon clouds, while Mr. Soderbergh paints Manhattan in watery shades of gloom. Thomas Newman’s score mimics and subverts the soothing music of antidepressant sales pitches, composing lullabies that portend a sleep full of nightmares. Ms. Mara, fine-boned and fragile-looking, but with a deep reservoir of scary intensity (see “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”), moves through her scenes with a blunted, haunted affect, and Emily stirs the protective instincts of the audience, of Mr. Law’s Dr. Jonathan Banks and also of her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum).

He is a former hedge fund cowboy recently (and not all that repentantly) released from prison after serving four years for insider trading. His return coincides with — or perhaps sets off — a severe depressive episode for his wife, including a suicide attempt in an underground parking garage. Martin, affable, hunky and upbeat (as I said, Channing Tatum), also represents the principal happiness that Emily has known in her life. A flashback renders the time before his incarceration as a bright blur of delicious shared luxury: Champagne in crystal flutes, a handsome sailboat, a cute little Mercedes in the driveway of a grand Greenwich mansion.

You will note that those signifiers of the good life are material rather than mental. Abundance is bliss. And though “Side Effects” (written by Scott Z. Burns, Mr. Soderbergh’s collaborator on “Contagion” and“The Informant!”) starts out on the pharmacologically renovated terrain of the psychological thriller — locating drama and suspense in the puzzles of Emily’s inner experience — it eventually separates the thrills from the psychology, flattening into a somewhat conventional story of double crosses and disguised motives. The movie is finally less about madness and medicine than about lust, jealousy and greed.

Not that those things are entirely unrelated, and not that a clever, old-fashioned noir potboiler is unwelcome in this cold, dumb season. Even as it concentrates on the pathos and pathology of an individual case, “Side Effects” glances at the larger economic forces that impinge on Emily’s condition. Behind the kind doctors and enticing advertisements lie the interests of big business. Dr. Banks, eager to advance his family’s fortune (his wife, who works in banking, is played by Vinessa Shaw), accepts a lucrative consulting gig for the company that makes Ablixa, whose brand seems to be everywhere — on name tags at conferences, on ballpoint pens and prescription pads.

These tokens of the medical-industrial complex are notable atmospheric details — minor symptoms or perhaps red herrings — rather than central concerns. The middle stretch of “Side Effects” is a forensic whodunit in which Dr. Banks, with the not always helpful assistance of Emily’s previous therapist (Catherine Zeta-Jones), tries to get to the bottom of a ghastly, possibly Ablixia-linked incident.

I don’t want to say too much more, since while the plot may be predictable (and more than a little preposterous) in retrospect, Mr. Soderbergh handles it brilliantly, serving notice once again that he is a crackerjack genre technician. He is especially alert to the ways that shifts in the direction of the plot alter the identities of important characters. Mr. Law’s transformation is especially impressive, as the good doctor travels a circuit from compassion to confusion to coldblooded fury and discovers that paranoia is less a psychic disorder than a realistic response to circumstances.

Mr. Soderbergh has said that “Side Effects” will be his last theatrically released feature film. (“Behind the Candelabra,” his Liberace biopic starring Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, will be shown on HBO.) As such, it is less a summing up than a greatest-hits package, reminding viewers of some of the things that this protean director has done well in recent years. (In addition to casting Channing Tatum, that is.) It has a clammy medical anxiety that recalls “Contagion,” hints of the corporate shenanigans of “The Informant!,” the do-gooder convictions of “Erin Brockovich” and an eye for high-end New York environments that defined “The Girlfriend Experience.”

What these films have in common — and we can add “Magic Mike”and even the “Ocean’s Eleven” pictures to the list — is a critical interest in the intimate effects of a capitalist economy that bundles ethical risks along with material comforts and opportunities for self-making. Mr. Soderbergh’s tales of sex, drugs, illness and crime are also about money. To some extent, of course, money is the unacknowledged obsession of everyone who makes movies, but few filmmakers have put this concern on screen with such intelligence and wit. This honesty is a big reason to miss Mr. Soderbergh and to hope that his retirement is temporary.

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