“Acute parasomnia.” It’s a condition, sometimes including sleepwalking, suffered by Emily (Rooney Mara). As the term suggests, her suffering is severe. It’s also a condition apparently brought on by a medication prescribed by Emily’s psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who gets the idea from Emily, who’s heard about it from a coworker. Or perhaps he gets it from a drug rep, or it could be from a colleague, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who also happens to be Emily’s former shrink.
In Side Effects, these many references to the fictional Ablixa are tossed in with references to real drugs, like Effexor or Celexa or Paxil or Prozac. The references constitute a bit of a plot in themselves, on top of the mostly lost plot concerning the drugs’ side effects, including acute parasomnia. But even as the multiple plots turn odd and convoluted, that very formulation—the convolutedness and the oddness—makes sense for the movie’s thematic focus, which is, yes, ironically, the typical loss of focus induced by drugs and drug culture. In this case, the loss is also a means to gain, the vast and increasing profits made by Big Pharma.
At first Side Effects (reportedly Steven Soderbergh’s final theatrical release) follows Emily’s efforts to deal with her depression, apparently re-occasioned by the return of her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), from his prison term after an insider trading conviction. As you might expect in a movie that begins with a pretty boy released from prison into the arms of a pretty girl, they seem initially thrilled to see one another again, even if, as a result of his crimes, they’re living a decidedly downsized existence compared to the nice one he keeps saying they’ll recover, as soon as he finds work (he’s got a lead from a guy he met in prison). He agrees they should go slow, of course, based on the brochure on “reintegrating” he was given and also on Emily’s erratic behavior. By turns happy and sad, eager to please and difficult to read, she presents a puzzle for her apparently amiable and not very forward-thinking husband.
Martin’s confusion compounds Emily’s, and so she finds her way to Banks, following a car crash that looks like a suicide attempt. Like so many other doctors, Banks supplements his income with drug company deals, giving out samples of new medications that his patients assume are safe, because he gives them out. When Emily hears about Ablixa around the same time Banks does, she ends up going home with some, and soon enough, thinks she’s feeling better, at least until the side effects surface. At this point the film’s initial interest in the ominously interlocking businesses of doctoring and selling drugs turns into a soapier story, as Emily’s interactions with Banks start to bother his wife (Vinessa Shaw) and his several encounters with Victoria look increasingly contrived.
These changes in focus don’t so much redirect the plot as they lapse into some less than inspired thriller-style clichés. That’s not to say that Emily doesn’t make for a compelling subject, observed and repeatedly misread by Martin, Banks, and Victoria too. But as Emily’s story gives way to Banks’, his own efforts to deal not only with Emily’s depression (and granted, these efforts are distracted, at best, not to mention compromised by the drug business protocol the film means to indict), but also with the effects of her illness on his life—his practice, his drug deals, and even his marriage.
The film is very good at creating the world surrounding and shaping Banks’ experience, his expectations and ignorance, his blithe disregard and his occasionally earnest surprise. “The newest thing gives them confidence,” observes Victoria, meaning, it doesn’t matter what that newest thing is, only that patents might believe something abut it. Everywhere in Banks’ environment, on institutional walls, public transport, and TV (“Take back tomorrow”), he and his cohorts function within view of ads for drugs that promise cures and answers, even if they also imagine and narrate the illness for which these cures might be needed. Drugs can fix you, they can, as Banks tells Emily, tell “your brain to stop feeling sad.” Whether or not he believes this formulation, or even whether or not he’s given it much thought, Banks makes a good living by selling it. And that’s the crime for which he must pay—until he doesn’t.
Eventually, Banks loses interest in what’s wrong with drug sales and side effects, even his own responsibility in this morass, and turns instead to solving the puzzle of Emily. In fact, these are not wholly separate plots, as she embodies—in an increasingly intimate, sinister, and not very surprising way—the problems the film first identifies as the essential DNA of the drugs business (or for that matter, insider trading or insurance sales, two other systems namechecked here). If these problems include old-fashioned greed and callousness, as well as lust and cruelty and outrageous egoism, the sorts of problems that might apply in any melodrama, they also, in and as Side Effects, include disturbing pettiness. It’s not a new insight, that wrongdoing is always, in some crucial regard, small. But it’s vexing nonetheless.