The failure of Steven Soderbergh’s new movie “Side Effects” can be explained simply if we accept the notion that the movie was at first intended as an attack on Big Drug Companies. Then a little over half-way through, the filmmakers seem to have realized they could get a thriller out of the project.
The occasionally entertaining director has assembled a good cast, including dependable Jude Law and three actors in need of parts in substantial movies—Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rooney Mara (from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), and Channing Tatum (or Tatum Channing). Eventually their characters will appear in a story about cold-blooded murder and the criminal manipulation of the legal and financial systems.
But that’s not the way the film starts out. Instead Soderbergh (director of “Traffic,” “Erin Brocovich,” and “Informant!”) and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who wrote “Contagion” and “Informant!”) begin by giving us greedy insider traders and showing us how the prescription medicine business promotes its products with psychiatrists.
Martin Taylor (Channing or Tatum) is just getting out of jail, having served a term for something, we aren’t sure what, that fits under the “insider trading” heading. His young wife Em (Mara) is waiting for him. But she doesn’t much enjoy sex with him. And then she intentionally drives her car into a brick wall.
Hospital personnel figure she has tried to kill herself and call in a shrink, Banks (Law) to evaluate her. He eventually prescribes a drug for her to use. She has had anti-depressants before, as have all of her work associates, and she suggests one to him. After taking it, she reports that she feels better.
But she may be sleep walking because of the drug. One morning her husband, who is talking about moving to Houston, awakens to discover she has begun making dinner for three. When he goes to the kitchen she appears to be asleep. Then she knifes him, killing him before returning to bed and to sleep, and then to awaken, discover the body, and call the police.
The prosecutor interviews Banks, who believes Em may have done the stabbing while asleep. The drug and Banks are blamed in the press. Em takes a plea deal and goes to a local mental hospital where Banks continues to see her. But he also goes to see her former psychiatrist, Dr. Siebert, who has, he discovers, written a paper about sleep-walking caused by that particular drug.
Everything is going wrong for Banks, of course. His partners and employers and some of his patients don’t want to be associated with the man who prescribed the drug that caused the sleep-walking murder. Someone lets it out that he was once stalked by a patient who made claims about his misconduct with her before committing suicide. Vaguely suggestive photos of him with Em show up.
But just about then, our hero sees one way to explain the unlikely events. And the movie becomes a sort of detective story from there on.
Unfortunately, “Side Effects” has done a lot in its first three-fifths that is completely superfluous once it becomes a murder story rather than a Sinclair Lewis business expose. One example will stand for many more: the film has shown us several scenes about Banks’s recruitment to work for a drug company running a drug trial. This is good if the movie’s object is to berate our model of drug generation. But including this stuff makes no sense in a murder mystery. It may be that half the material in the film’s first reels is similarly misleading and wasted.
Then the ending is all too soft, the victory too complete. Nope. “Side Effects” could have been a lot of fun. And probably should have been a lot of fun. But it isn’t. It is a disappointment.