• courtesy of Open Road Films

The latest and maybe final film from director Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects isn’t the movie that it first appears to be. About halfway through, the story pivots and another film emerges. Then a most curious thing happens: It isn’t that movie, either.

Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) stars as Emily Taylor, a formerly upper-crusty sort whose life is upended when her financier husband Martin (Channing Tatum) goes to prison for insider trading.

When Martin gets out of jail, Emily does her best to pick up the pieces, but she’s paralyzed with severe depression and panic attacks. After a half-hearted suicide attempt, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) prescribes a series of antidepressant drugs.

Some work, some don’t, and some cause Emily to experience truly worrisome sleepwalking episodes. We also learn that the good doctor is participating in clinical trials for an experimental drug called Ablixa. Meanwhile, Emily’s former shrink Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones) gets involved and the plot thickens.

It’s around this point that Side Effects makes its first lateral leap. What appeared to be an issue movie about the evils of Big Pharma becomes a twisty thriller in the key of Hitchcock. Dark details emerge concerning Emily’s past, and Dr. Banks’ as well. A crime is committed and a murder mystery is hatched.

The business about antidepressants and monster pharmaceutical companies becomes background, and we realize Soderbergh is on a different track entirely. This is a nice bit of misdirection and Side Effects works best in the middle passages. Soderbergh engages his usual tightly-controlled storytelling and camera maneuvers. Meanwhile, Jude Law and Rooney Mara put their performances into high gear as their characters unravel.

Things don’t end well, however, for the characters or for the director. The script by Scott Z. Burns (he also penned Soderbergh’s superior Contagion) veers yet again, away from Hitchcock and dangerously close to CSI: SVUterritory — what with the lurid revelations and the expanding criminal conspiracy. Zeta-Jones gets a particularly raw deal as her buttoned-up shrink becomes a wanton vixen in the manner of 1980s pop metal music videos.

Suspend your incredulity, though, and Side Effects has enough momentum from the middle sequences to power it through. The film is supposedly Steven Soderbergh’s last, although the only person that seems who seems to believe that Soderbergh is retiring is the director himself. Side Effects is an effective enough film, but not the kind of project you want as your swan song, I would think.

Side Effects is currently available for digital download and on-demand through the usual vectors of online and cable. The DVD and Blu-ray versions will be available next week. If you go DVD, be sure to check out the bonus materials, which include some playful behind-the-scenes footage shot by Zeta-Jones. The featurette suggests that the cast and crew didn’t take Side Effects too seriously. Neither should you. They also suggest that everyone had a pretty good time. So should you.

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