Chuck Koplinski: 'Side Effects' works as both cautionary tale, thriller

It's estimated that more than 10 million Americans are currently being treated for depression through the use of prescription drugs. Much of this medication is relatively new and seems to be constantly replaced by something "better." This lends credence to the notion that those taking them are nothing more than guinea pigs and that their meds might not be completely effective if they're as interchangeable as they seem to be.

This is a fascinating subject that should be the focus of a major documentary, but until that gets made, we have Stephen Soderbergh's "Side Effects," a film that begins as an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, then turns into something else all together. There's no question this is an engaging entertainment, and it sweeps you away, hurtling down a different narrative path before you even know what hits you. Whether you're willing to follow it depends on your tolerance for being manipulated.

We open at the scene of a crime, seeing a bloodstained floor and a present that has gone unopened. Then things shift to three months earlier when we meet Emily (Rooney Mara), a little slip of a thing who is nervous about reuniting with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum), who has just finished a four-year prison sentence for insider trading. Her anxiety becomes overwhelming as she breaks down in public and tries to harm herself by purposely wrecking her car. She comes under the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who suggests she try a new drug called Ablixa that he contends will "make it easier to be who you are." That she has to sign a release to take it, because the doctor has agreed to run a trial on it for $50,000, does not give her pause.

Of course, the drug works, but the side effects Emily exhibits are far beyond dry mouth and nausea. She takes to sleepwalking, going so far as to make breakfast in the middle of the night without knowing it, and zones out on the subway train, riding all the way to the end of the line and back without knowing it. Then Emily's behavior takes an even more extreme turn.

It's at this point that the film switches gears, and to give you any more details would be doing Soderbergh and his cast a disservice. Suffice it to say that Banks finds himself under investigation, having to take the fall for prescribing Emily the medication responsible for her actions. The ethical questions revolving around this issue aren't belabored, which is to Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns' credit. The director has always trusted his audience to be able to connect the dots, and that skill is certainly needed here, not only in dealing with the moral issues at hand but also in following the plot during the film's second half.

All of the cast is exceptional, conveying a sense of urgency that fosters believability in the story. In many ways, this is a film about isolation as each person is intent on working toward his own end. Soderbergh underscores this throughout with shots that frame many of the characters alone or at the far sides of the frame. The only real connection is inspired as Burns begins to experience many of the same difficulties as his patients and requires medication of his own.

In the end, "Side Effects" is a film that serves two masters and satisfies both. Effective as an expose on the modern medication epidemic and the corporate greed that propels it, as well as a dark mystery, Soderbergh and crew effectively remind us that psychosis comes in various shapes and forms, some of which no amount of medication can cure.

 

'Side Effects'

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Cast: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ann Dowd, Mamie Gummer, Vinessa Shaw, David Costabile, Victor Cruz and Polly Draper.

Directed by Stephen Soderbergh; produced by Scott Z. Burns, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Gregory Jacobs; written by Burns.

An Open Road Films release. 115 minutes. Rated R (sexuality, nudity, violence and language). At the Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

Bard meets the undead in "Warm Bodies." (3 1/2 stars)

By now, one would think that the whole zombie thing had been played out. However, Jonathan Levine delivers something quite unique with his adaptation of Isaac Marion's "Warm Bodies," a zombie love story that is far more interested in what it means to be alive than dead.

Using William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" as its template, the film examines issues pertaining to our humanity, reminding us that our memories are the key to maintaining our identities, and without them, no sort of connection, between the dead or undead, can be made.

Doing what zombies do, R (Nicholas Hoult) and his undead crew are set to chow down on a group of human scavengers when the unexpected happens — he makes a connection with a young beauty named Julie (Teresa Palmer). Wanting to protect her rather than eat her, he leads her to the airport where the dead hang out, and they spend a few days in the airplane he has commandeered. Miraculously, R starts to slowly become human again, feeding off the contact he has with Julie while adopting the memories of her boyfriend, which he has access to by continuing to eat handfuls of his brain. As you can see, it's a traditional love story, one that has its fair share of difficulties, chief among them Julie's father (John Malkovich), who happens to be the militant leader of the last remaining humans.

The film is very clever in the way it channels teenage angst through the prism of being a zombie. After all, the undead are the ultimate outsiders, and Hoult is quite good at displaying not only his character's physical and emotional awkwardness but his gradual resurrection as well. Palmer is fine as well, looking properly luminous and distressed, depending on the situation.

In the end, you can't help but smile at the film's simple yet meaningful message. It's only through sincere interaction with others that we foster our sense of humanity. If you opt to exist in an alienated state, you're just as good as dead.

"Chasing Ice" presents compelling evidence of global warming. (3 stars)

Skeptics of the global warming phenomenon (you know, the ones with their heads in the sand) are a hard bunch to sway. No amount of shifting weather patterns, fluctuations in the seasonal cycle or increased severity of major storms is going to make them think that the planet is changing. Nope, all is well according to them, especially if they're under the sway of pundits who are in Big Oil's pockets. Still, there is the hope that the obvious will become, well, obvious to them and watching Jeff Orlowski's fine documentary "Chasing Ice" might be the first step toward changing their minds.

The film centers around nature photographer James Balog's efforts to record the melting of icebergs, glaciers and snow-capped peaks at various locations around the world. He and his Extreme Ice Survey team set up various cameras in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana, all of them aimed at various ice formations, each taking multiple pictures each day over the course of anywhere from six to 18 months. Their findings are sobering as they put the photos in a time-lapse presentation, which shows the ice receding in each location at a rapid rate.

The evidence is conclusive and frightening as Balog's work underscores the irreparable damage that has occurred and portends far greater environmental calamity in the not-too-distant future. That being said, Orlowski's approach to this material is not overbearing as he wisely lets Balog's work speak for itself and then backs it up with breathtaking scenes of the ice-bound, pristine locales that are vanishing before our eyes.

If anything, "Ice" drives home the point that our world is far too precious to hang in the balance of senseless quibbling and that it's worth erring on the side of caution where the health of our planet is concerned.

A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at chucksmoviepicks. He can also be reached at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com

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