With 1 in 10 Americans seeking treatment for depression, anxiety and other psychological disorders, users of drugs like Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft are almost as ubiquitous as the ads for them. Side Effects seeks to capitalize on our familiarity with prescription drugs and their dizzyingly long lists of side effects, both of which have become staples of American popular culture. Director Steven Soderbergh explores the topic cogently and does a great job of using the subject to build drama and suspense, but the twist in the final act will leave some underwhelmed.
Side Effects tells the story of Emily Taylor (played by Rooney Mara), a young wife who attempts suicide by driving her SUV into a wall the day her husband (a Wall Street trader, played by Channing Tatum) is released from prison. Emily is treated for depression by her new psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who puts her on an experimental new anti-depressant called “Ablixa”. Banks keeps Emily on the drug even after she reports bouts of sleepwalking. When Emily stabs her husband to death in an Ablixa-induced sleepwalking episode, Banks must choose between letting his patient take the fall for murder or coming clean about his questionable diagnosis.
This premise is pretty engaging and writer Scott Z. Burns handles the subject matter in a way that will resonate honestly with the record number of Americans on anti-depressants and the people that’re close to them. For example, the first drug Emily’s prescribed gives her nausea and kills her sex drive–side effects that put a strain on her relationship and ultimately make her depression worse. This is actually pretty similar to the stressful “trial-and-error” approach to medication patients suffering with psychological disorders sometimes go through when seeking treatment. (Emily apparently has very good health insurance; the cost of treatment and medication for mental health is an issue that’s likely to compound the anxiety of real-life patients with non-comprehensive or non-existent health coverage).
Side Effects is also punctuated with critiques of the Pharmaceutical Industrial Complex at the heart of the American “healthcare” system. In an early scene, Dr. Banks and his colleagues attend a dinner paid for by a pharmaceutical rep where they discuss “gifts” they’ve received from drug companies, including World Series tickets and trips to Hawaii. You get the impression from this candid conversation between professionals that what doctors prescribe to patients has more to do with which drug company’s sales reps get to them first and make the best offer, which is not far off from how it works in real-life. The money and perks doctors receive from “consulting” with big pharmaceutical companies make patient fees look like small potatoes. It’s ultimately Banks’ desire to get into the big money game of psychiatric consulting that sets up the central conflict of the story.
The most interesting part of Side Effects is when Dr. Banks finds himself at the center of a moral conflict: does he sell out his patient and save his practice or put everything on the line by coming clean, a move that could put him in the crosshairs of the pharmaceutical giants? Unfortunately, the film’s final twist unravels this conflict far too conveniently. Banks discovers that Emily’s symptoms were concocted as part of a scheme hatched with her previous psychiatrist, Dr. Siebert (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) to somehow profit from killing Ablixa stock. This convoluted twist–which involves the revelation that Emily seduced Siebert and became an expert in Wall Street derivatives from overhearing her husband talk about them–isn’t just implausible, it retreats from the much more compelling conflict raised in the earlier acts. Before the twist, Emily and Dr. Banks are both victims of a healthcare industry that generates tons of money for big drug companies, but ties the hands of providers and jeopardizes patient outcomes. After the twist, Emily’s simply a manipulative, gold-digging, lesbian bitch and we can go back to not really caring about any of the intrinsic problems of for-profit healthcare regimes.
Granted, it’s a little harsh to expect a Spring thriller like this to seriously take on the myriad problems with the Pharmaceutical Industry, but several relevant ethical issues are haphazardly swept away when the twist is revealed, leaving the viewer a little dissatisfied. Probably worse, the movie backpedals with a twist that’s both highly contrived and does a lot to undermine earlier work done to build sympathy for the protagonist and, by extension, real-life depression sufferers. Side Effects is enjoyable but forgettable. Ultimately evading the complex implications introduced in its early acts, it leaves you feeling like it was probably a much more interesting film at some point in its early conception.