Mystery writer Agatha Christie never handled prescription meds in her stories, but “Side Effects” might be the product of her plotline on Lexapro.
Sure, the sets are less exotic — Christie’s Nile becomes a drizzly Hudson River and the Orient is a forever overcast New York labyrinth — but the new film from director Steven Soderbergh is simple modernization of a formula already well-established.
Drama, sub-character investigation, resolution. This one’s just heavily medicated.
In the 21st century of prescription panacea, Soderbergh attempts to make a film as close to an eloquent murder mystery as the times can provide.
To do so, he turns the drug industry and modern emotional distress into weapons as lethal as knives or candlesticks in a game of “Clue.”
Their initial victim, then, is Emily, undergoing unspecified white collar despair. She’s played by Rooney Mara, former “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” detective, now girl with the manic depression.
It seems strange to watch such a powerful actress as Mara being subdued into a hazy, soft spoken invalid — that’s a role for someone like Kristen Stewart. But like any decent Christie tale, Mara is at the forefront of the murder.
She’s married to actor Channing Tatum’s heavy-handed Martin, a convicted felon of insider training.
Just out from a four-year sentence, he returns to find his wife Emily prescribed to “Ablixa,” but what he also notices are its glaring side effects.
They’re quite common by-products of medication: sleepwalking, lack of memory, and stabbing your husband after chopping some tomatoes.
After all, Ablixa’s the perfect name for a pill that makes you kill your loved ones. This is a murder mystery. What did you expect?
The rest of the film is carried by an antagonism between Emily’s psychiatrists: the heroic-looking Jude Law and the snake-eyed conspirator Catherine Zeta-Jones (then again, that’s how she always looks).
Emily’s stabbing spree has landed her in a psychiatric ward, since it’s the side effects of the pill that made her do it.
But Law’s character suspects differently. All that remains is for the audience to connect the dots while the film catches up in another hour.
Following a formula can make quick hits. Blockbusters, sequels, they make themselves accessible by being equally obvious to an audience unprepared to think.
“Side Effects,” to its credit, takes topical issues in today’s healthcare playground and twists them into a semi-cynical narrative, one screaming “this could happen to you.” That’s probably unlikely though.
The only reason this would ever happen to you is if a déjà vu from other mystery movies kicks in to falsify its originality.
For in a genre so easily bought and sold, “Side Effects” is a clever, ineffective placebo.
You will take it when asked. But upon the credit roll, you’ll only feel a slight sensation of boredom and relief.