Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta Jones, Channing Tatum
It’s hard to believe that Prozac has only been around since 1987. I remember reading Listening to Prozac (1997) and feeling horrified that a select faction of the population was willing to take drugs in order to alter their mood and personalities. Less than twenty years later, I would be hard pressed to name more than a handful of people I know who don’t prescribe to the “better living through pharmaceuticals” school of thought. It wasn’t unusual for the topic of conversation at baby playgroups I attended to be what particular meds would take the edge off being an overwhelmed new mom. The stigma of taking medication has been stripped. Quite simply, it seems that everyone is popping pills to feel better, stronger, smarter, happier and healthier.
Steven Soderbergh takes that premise and explores the implications of society’s increasing reliance on mood-altering substances, whether they take the form of a pill or something more innocuous, like alcohol. His stamp is all over the first half of the movie as he introduces the main characters through a series of vignettes. Waif-like Emily (Rooney Mara) is suffering a recurring bout of depression following her husband’s (Channing Tatum) release from prison for insider trading. Her psychiatrist Jonathan (Jude Law) is well intended when it comes to his patients, but he pushes aside the needs of his wife (Vinissa Shaw) and son to the side to care for his patients. Emily’s former doctor Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones) also plays a role as Jonathan seeks information about Emily’s medical history. These scenes are accompanied by Thomas Newman’s effectively chilling music score.
These principal players all come into question after Emily begins have some deleterious side effects from a new medication that Jonathan prescribes for her. A murder occurs, and suddenly it’s not so apparent who (or what) is at fault. Was Emily merely having an adverse reaction to a medication, or is there more to the story? The less said, the better.
I loved the first half of this film, when Soderbergh is providing social commentary about the pervasiveness of prescription meds in our society. As Emily collapses into a tailspin of despair and hopelessness, friends and acquaintances start coming out of the woodwork to share their thoughts on what meds might work for her. Everyone has their own story about something they have taken. A media onslaught of advertisements for antidepressants and anti-anxiety greet Emily at every street corner and subway stop, and television ads tout the virtues of this substance or that, feeding into the frenzy to get the latest and greatest artificial ego boost. Doctors get wined, dined and treated to “educational” getaways by pharm reps hoping to hawk their wares. It’s a nasty portrait of a dirty business, and it’s not going to please the pharmaceutical industry.
I didn’t find the second half as compelling. The film devolves into a thriller that pulls out all the stops to titillate and transfix the audience. I can’t really say it’s predictable, but it seemed better suited to popcorn flick. It lacked the biting edge of that first half. Scribe Scott Z. Burns seems to overcook things in his attempt to keep you guessing. There are also some disappointing stereotypes employed in the task.
The performances are solid. Zeta-Jones plays the role of an ice queen with honed precision, while Mara counters her tough turn in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with that of an emotionally wounded and physically fragile suburban wife. However, Law was the best surprise. I have found him to be less and less interesting as an actor as time progresses, but he captures some of his old charisma in Effects. In the blink of an eye, Jonathan is castigated by his wife and the entire medical community, based solely on dubious accusations and wild speculation. What’s scary about his predicament is that in this day of 24/7 news coverage, it could happen to anyone.
Effects is ultimately entertaining, though not completely satisfying. You rarely go wrong with a Soderbergh film (last year’s Magic Mike is a case in point), so it’s an easy recommendation. I just wish it would have remained as thought provoking as that first half for the film’s entirety. — Shannon