'Side Effects' Review: No Pill Can Make Disappointing Third Act Disappear

We’re all familiar with commercials that note the side effects of various drugs. If you take a heartburn medication, a headache may ensue. If you take a sleeping pill, you might sleep longer than you wish.

Neither consequence is as scary as the side effect a young woman played by Rooney Mara experiences when she takes anti-depressants in the new, aptly-titled Side Effects.

The story begins with the image of a blood-stained floor and then flashes back to three months prior. At that time, Emily Taylor (Mara) is welcoming her charming husband (Channing Tatum) back from a stint in prison. Her joy is underwhelming, though, and despite the relief of having him home she still suffers from anxiety and depression.

At a party, she becomes overtly anxious and needs her husband to rescue her. She is tempted to jump in front of a moving train. In a parking garage, she even drives her car straight into a wall. The warning signs are clear and undeniable, it seems.

A psychiatrist named Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) begins to see her as a patient after the car crash. In researching her past, Jonathan meets with her previous doctor-- played coldly by Catherine Zeta-Jones--who recommends a new drug on the market.

Soon enough, the woman who couldn’t be happy seems pleasantly complacent with her life. Despite that, the side effects of her new drug begin changing everything about her.  

At one point in therapy, Dr. Banks offers up another person's quote that succinctly sums up the story’s creative impulses--“Depression is an inability to construct a future.” The quote stands out because the movie, like the main character herself, is full of surprises and the story's future is always in doubt.

Moviegoers wanting to see a film about mental illness should be prepared for some of the twists and turns this artful—but not always believable—film offers. The future of the story isn’t what you think it will be so but for the sake of not offering spoilers, it should be stated that the film’s first half plays completely differently than its latter half.

Side effects, it seem, have a way of changing the future for all those involved.

Director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Burns have crafted a story that meshes several different ideas into one highly-watchable 106-minute drama. The cast is well-suited for the production, especially Mara who is becoming quite an actress. In The Social Network (2010), Mara played a vulnerable girl whose feelings are crushed when her ex-boyfriend trashes her online. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Mara starred as the intense, take-no-prisoners title character. In Side Effects, we see her as a mix of these two. Taylor can be strong and merciless in her actions but she also shows an incredibly powerless side when it comes to her emotional state.

The ending does feel a bit too neat and contrived for a Soderbergh production. The story attempts to push boundaries and to take viewers down a road that they would not expect and that they might not enjoy. But when it ends, everything comes together with an uninspiring and undeserved third act reveal that could have easily come from a movie of the week (an HBO movie of the week, that is). 

Aside from its third act, the ride of Side Effects is a thoughtful and engaging one. Some of the twists and turns might be hard to swallow but the feature is still worth checking out, despite the side effect of feeling disappointed in the weak ending.


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