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story.lead_photo.caption Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) experiments with prescription drugs in Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, a Hitchockian thriller set in the world of psychiatric therapy.

— With Side Effects, writer Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh, the team behind Contagion, play the same tricks on their viewers that they play on their beleaguered characters.

"Who can see the lies?"

This clip from "Side Effects" features Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jude Law. Courtesy of Open Road Films. (By Philip Martin)
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They strategically withhold data, create plenty of opportunities for false expectations and load the movie with characters who aren’t quite who they appear to be. Fortunately, the audience fares better than anyone in the film.

This is a formidable achievement considering that one of the characters has every reason to be chronically depressed. Ad agency drone Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) has had enough miseries to fill an oil tanker.

If genetics hadn’t already stuck her with a brain inclined to sadness, fate has. Her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is a former Wall Street high roller who is now languishing in prison for insider trading. As a result, she has had to drastically downsize her living conditions and the stress has caused her to miscarry.

Even after Martin’s term is over, the burden of trying to rebuild their lives seems so great that it’s not surprising that she rams her car into a parking lot wall.

While Emily is barely hurt by the incident, the hospital psychiatrist examining her, Dr. Johnathan Banks (Jude Law), believes that she’s suffering from an acute combination of depression and anxiety and prescribes her a series of drugs, including Zoloft and an experimental medicine.

Because he’s strapped for cash just like his patient, Banks thinks nothing of being compensated by the drug company for his experiments with Emily. Her former psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert(Catherine Zeta-Jones), is familiar with the drug and thinks Emily, who is seemingly miserable on the other meds, is an excellent candidate.

Naturally, everything goes wrong from here.

Thankfully, Burns and Soderbergh have more on their agenda than simply trashing the pharmaceutical industry. Having taken some of the drugs prescribed in the film, I can personally verify some of the adverse reactions that Emily complains about. While my own bouts of depression and anxiety were milder than hers, the drugs have made me deal with life’s formidable challenges more easily and have made it easier for others to tolerate me.

For the sake of accuracy and entertainment value, Side Effects reveals that psychiatrists and their meds can help, but overworked shrinks can make the same faulty decisions the rest of us do. Human error can be as catastrophic in this field as any other, maybe more so.

Burns certainly knows the lingo, and he comes up with plenty of surprising but vaguely plausible jolts. Law’s Banks seems well-intended, but has enough personal problems to make treating Emily more than he can handle. Perhaps he could crack under the strain.

Mara proves that her fine work in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was hardly a fluke. Her doll-like face has a pair of nervous eyes that indicate something grave is happening in Emily’s head.

Soderbergh paces the film in a steady and deliberate manner, while Thomas Newman’s (Skyfall) score is hypnotic and dissonant. As a result, Side Effects lulls viewers before delivering the requisite shocks.

Soderbergh has been declaring that he’ll take a hiatus after Side Effects, and considering that he has managed to deliver a rare character-driven thriller that works with a single car crash, the absence of him and his work is regrettable.

Side Effects 87 Cast: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vinessa Shaw Director: Steven Soderbergh Rating: R, for sexuality, nudity, violence and language Running time: 106 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 02/08/2013

Print Headline: Under the INFLUENCE/Fallout from experimental drug pushes woman to the edge

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