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Jude Law, left, and Catherine Zeta-Jones star in "Side Effects." (Open Road Films via AP)
Rated R for violence, sexuality, drug use, adult themes.
In a world of movies that usually telegraph every punch depressingly far in advance, "Side Effects" stands out as a rare chameleon.
This sleek, crafty flick morphs several times, from biting social critique to gripping personal psychodrama to legal procedural and back again. It keeps you guessing until the final frames, which unfold with a flurry of twists.
Over his career, director Steven Soderbergh who says this is his final turn behind the camera for a full-length feature film has often left me cold with his clinical, and cynical, perspective on human emotion.
But that's exactly what's called for with this script, a tight, tawdry tale from Scott Z. Burns ("Contagion," "The Informant!," "The Bourne Ultimatum").
And it perfectly suits the lead actor, mercurial Rooney Mara, who proves her knockout turn in the American version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" was far from a fluke.
The film opens with the camera panning along a trail of blood across a parquet floor. Then the story flashes back three months.
Emily Taylor (Mara) is a young woman from humble beginnings whose life, once a fairy tale in the making, is in ruins.
Just moments after she married her Prince Charming hunky, up-and-coming Wall Street broker Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) a fleet of cop cars pulled up and arrested him for insider trading, a crime for which he draws four years in prison.
Emily miscarries their baby, they lose their house, she's forced into a thankless, low-wage job and enters a drifting limbo, waiting for Martin to reappear.
But their reunification is far from peaches and cream. Their sex drives are way off kilter, for one thing. And Martin spikes her anxiety level with the news that he may be inclined to go back to his old financial shenanigans.
Emily slips into a depression that eventually leads her to a parking garage where she points her car straight at a wall and jams on the accelerator.
In the hospital, her attending physician is psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (the great Jude Law), who wants to prescribe an antidepressant. After some trial and error, he settles on a drug recommended by a colleague, Dr. Victoria Siebert (sultry Catherine Zeta-Jones) who happens to be Emily's former therapist.
The new drug, the fictional Ablixa, revives Emily's sex drive and makes her feel more balanced while awake but it also causes sleepwalking.
To this point, Soderbergh and Burns seem intent on dispensing a beatdown to a pharmaceutical industry portrayed as borderline thuggish in manipulating a society that finds it chic to be on something in high-speed pursuit of fast, easy wellness.
"It doesn't make you anything you're not," Banks soothingly says of one drug. "It just makes it easier to be who you are."
But what happens when the results are not the calm clarity displayed in the ubiquitous drug marketing campaigns? As one faltering patient says, "I don't understand it. … You watch the commercials on TV and people are getting better."
That's not the case with Emily, whose deterioration is like a highway pileup from which you can't look away.
Then comes a shocking act that will make you feel like you've reached the apex of a roller coaster and are about to take that long plunge. It's no exaggeration to say the film becomes something else entirely. No more details without spoiling the fun.
If this is the way he leaves the movies, Soderbergh is going out dealing. With its seductive feints, his "Side Effects" might just be the sleeper flick of the winter.
Trivia note: Check out the http://www.tryablixa.com/">way-clever website created for the fictional drug Ablixa.
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