Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is one of those rare movies that spends an hour seeming to be one thing until it pivots, about two-thirds of the way through, and becomes something entirely different.
The husband (Channing Tatum) of a depressed young New Yorker named Emily (Rooney Mara, the American Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) has just gotten out of prison after a four-year stint for insider trading. Emily has been loyal and loving throughout, even though she lost everything and has had to move to the marginal Washington Heights neighborhood. Her husband’s talk of starting a business with a fellow minimum-security prisoner triggers thoughts of suicide, and she drives her car into the wall of her garage. At the hospital, she encounters a psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law)—a good and caring man who genuinely wants to help her.
Everyone in Side Effects is either on an antidepressant, has taken an antidepressant, prescribes antidepressants, or sells them. Dr. Banks is excited to become part of a clinical trial for a new drug, Ablixa, because the pharmaceutical firm will pay him $50,000 and his wife is out of work. Emily, whose current medication isn’t working, almost jumps in front of a subway. Her boss tells her about Ablixa, which is being heavily advertised. When Emily asks Dr. Banks to prescribe it for her, he does so. It works—she cheers up and her sex drive is renewed—but it causes her to sleepwalk. So Dr. Banks prescribes another drug to help control the sleepwalking. Awful things ensue.
Side Effects is a meticulously realized portrait of a young woman in the grips of a terrible malady—but it turns out this is only the windup. There’s a big red herring at play here, which subverts our expectations beautifully. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns produced Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, so an anti-Big-Pharma storyline would seem to be in his wheelhouse. And Steven Soderbergh made Erin Brockovich a dozen years ago, so he has a history of making movies that lionize tort lawyers and their junk suits. Together, Burns and Soderbergh made the comic whistleblower picture The Informant! starring Matt Damon.
Suffice it to say that if Burns and Soderbergh were characters in this movie, they would only have made those other films to establish their leftie bona fides and thereby fool you into thinking they were making a movie about poor people being poisoned by bad drugs. (They pulled the same trick last year in their brilliant thriller Contagion, in which a muckraking leftist blogger turns out to be a villainous scam artist.)
The movie Side Effects resembles most closely is the criminally underrated Malice, made in 1993 with Bill Pullman, Nicole Kidman, and Alec Baldwin (in the role that helped end his problematic tenure as a matinee idol and begin his second career as one of the great character actors of all time). Pullman and Kidman are a married couple having trouble conceiving a child. They rent an apartment in their house to Baldwin, an incredibly arrogant surgeon who talks Pullman into approving an unnecessary procedure on Kidman that renders her infertile. The couple sues; Baldwin handles himself catastrophically at trial and loses a huge judgment; Kidman leaves Pullman. And then the plot really begins.
Most people would probably say the ultimate red-herring movie is The Usual Suspects, which features a crook telling a cop about a crime in which he was involved and which we watch unfold as he recounts it—only to learn in the last two minutes that the entire story was being improvised by the crook from bits and pieces on a bulletin board behind the cop’s head.
But the red-herring movie to end all red-herring movies is actually The Shawshank Redemption, which has the startling distinction of being the favorite film of all time in a poll of the users of the website IMDb.com, its 916,000 votes far outdistancing The Godfather’s 658,000. Most of those voting for it surely think they love The Shawshank Redemption because it is a testament to the human spirit, an account of a man who does not let a terrible injustice destroy him, among other sentimental readings.
In fact, the reason The Shawshank Redemption is so effective is that it turns itself from a prison melodrama into a dazzling revenge caper, in which one of the prisoners steals a fortune from the corrupt warden and forces his suicide. The movie needs its two hours of drippy uplift to make the caper emotionally satisfying. Without the heist, it’s just sodden nonsense. With the heist, The Shawshank Redemption is something unexpected and original.
So is Side Effects.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD's movie critic.