SIDE EFFECTS: A Dandy Thriller -- but See It Before You Read Too Much!

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February 18, 2013

SIDE EFFECTS:
*** (out of four)

Years ago, a Village Voice review of “Jagged Edge” started by proclaiming its excellence -- and then insisted that readers who hadn’t seen it should do so at once before reading any farther.

Though “Side Effects” isn’t quite as tasty as that 1985 white-knuckler, I’m inclined to echo those sentiments here. The latest from the writer and director who gave us “Contagion” is crafty, creepy and thoroughly absorbing.

If that sounds good -- and if you want to see an up-and-coming actress (Rooney Mara) at the top of her game -- then treat yourself now, without learning more beforehand.

For those who can’t resist proceeding, I’ll try not to give much away.

But even saying that much is something of a spoiler -- because for about 45 minutes, “Side Effects” is a steady, thoughtful, character-driven drama about depression and the ethics of risky side effects.

Then it pulls a 180 (don’t worry, you won’t see it coming even though I’ve said this) -- thereafter becoming a twisty medical thriller that moves breathlessly toward a somewhat enigmatic conclusion.

All this works well; but I couldn’t help feeling that the initial movie was more promising.

Mara plays an emotionally troubled wife whose husband (Channing Tatum) is fresh out of prison.

She grapples with bouts of depression, trying various medications under the guidance of the kindly Dr. Banks (Jude Law) -- with uneven results.

Mara -- who burned up the screen opposite Daniel Craig in “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” -- is enormously sympathetic, and eerily good at her character’s ups and downs.

Between her fine performance and the poignant medical issues (deepened by the fact that a drug company pays Banks to test new meds on patients), this early portion of the film is a compelling, grown-up drama with widespread relevance for many who’ve wrestled their way through a series of unpredictable antidepressants.

The medical-thriller segment is at times too clever for its own good, with an intricate plot including lesbianism, sodium amytal, double jeopardy and secrets from Banks’ past.

Parts of this are tough to follow, and the otherwise competent script sometimes sacrifices believability for the sake of speed, complexity and surprise.

The earlier part of the film is, by contrast, grippingly believable; and again I think “Side Effects” missed its chance to be great, settling instead for merely good.

Quite good, in fact.

Catherine Zeta-Jones feels too slick as Mara’s previous counselor; but the rest of the cast is first rate, including strong unknowns in lesser roles (Michael Nathanson as a DA, Peter Friedman as Banks’ coworker).

The plotting is swift and smart -- and as for that ending: It manages to provide the closure needed in a complex thriller; yet a brief coda reawakens the earlier issue of how much control psychiatrists have over their patients.

So again: Not great; but certainly worth seeing -- even if you went ahead and read this whole review.

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