This is an intriguing, mildly distracting device, especially when the first 45 minutes of the movie unfold with only the vaguest idea of what it's all going to be about. But you know it's going somewhere.
A high-finance type (Channing Tatum) is released from prison. His wife (Rooney Mara) greets him but seems depressed, which she is, clinically speaking. Her career-minded psychiatrist (Jude Law) prescribes the latest in pill-based health care.
For a while, we suspect "Side Effects" is going to unroll as some kind of cautionary tale about Big Pharma, and the ease with which society embraces the latest soma-like sedative of the brave new world.
But the script by Scott Z. Burns veers into genre thriller territory, and thankfully so. After seeming to drift (in a cool, well-acted way) for half its running time, the film snaps into gear and goes into clockwork motion. We won't recount any more plot here, but the prologue is re-visited and blood is spilled.
Oscar-winner Soderbergh, whose career has ranged from anti-commercial projects (like the two-part "Che") to mainstream entertainment (the "Ocean's Eleven" pictures), knows how to move a film along, even if his work has a dour streak that feels dominant here.
Soderbergh's style is almost willfully impersonal; he's like an artist who would rather be a technician. He tends to back away from big dramatic moments, which might be why he doesn't quite stick the landing in the final 10 minutes or so.
But "Side Effects" is a clean ride. Soderbergh has given new life to Jude Law, for instance, and he allows Catherine Zeta-Jones (as a rival doctor) to indulge her frosty side.
The small roles are uncannily well cast, and Rooney Mara, lately the title character in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," is terrific. An actress who works in teeny inflections, she understands that the camera is so close you don't have to emote all over the place to get your point across.
Soderbergh has declared that this will be his final film, as he turns to painting and other pursuits. That's too bad, even if it's just a sabbatical: The guy has fine-tuned a certain kind of mainstream movie (lately "Contagion" and "Magic Mike") and brought it up a notch. We need more of those.
"Side Effects" 3 ½ stars
A clean, well-paced outing by director Steven Soderbergh, which begins like a cautionary tale about Big Pharma and turns into a murder mystery. Psychiatrist Jude Law dispenses pills to a depressed (and excellent ) Rooney Mara, as Channing Tatum looks on.
Rated: R for nudity, violence, language.
Showing: Alderwood 7, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marsyville, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Sundance, Woodinville, Cascade.
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