LOS ANGELES - Like a powerful anti-depressant, Side Effects (Rated R, 1 hr., 46 min., opens nationwide Friday) works wonders at first. It's a gripping thriller through the first hour and a chilling indictment of the nation's pharmaceutical industry.
But like a lot of meds, it loses its effectiveness over time, and you'll build a resistance to Effects (** out of four) eventually, particularly when it dissolves into a standard crime flick.
The result is a severe let-down, particularly considering the director behind it, Steven Soderbergh, a filmmaker who has given way to whimsy (the Oceans Eleven franchise) and, worse, self indulgence (Solaris, The Girlfriend Experience) since winning his own Oscar for Traffic and one for Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich in 2000.
He appears at the top of his game at the outset of Effects, displaying some of the sharp dialogue he showed when he splashed on Hollywood's horizon with sex, lies and videotape. Putting a strained marriage under the microscope, the movie begins as a damning critique of a society hooked on pills, fast fixes and reasons to blame someone else.
Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor, a beautiful wisp of a woman whose life in New York City is turned upside down when her young, charming husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is imprisoned for four years for insider trading.
When we meet Emily, she's having trouble coping with welcoming her man to the outside world, and Effects opens with a startling suicide attempt.
As she's recovering in the hospital, she meets psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (a solid Jude Law, who is looking more like the late Robert Shaw with every film).
Banks prescribes Emily Ablixa, a hot new anti-depressant that promises in its omnipresent ads that users can "take back tomorrow."
Emily's tomorrows, though, seem to get bleaker as she begins sleepwalking and forgetting her todays.
Effects is a powerful trip initially, as we see how quickly the good doctor is willing to add prescription after prescription to get Emily on the mend.
More effectively, he's happy to take cash from pharmaceutical firms that offer him as much as $50,000 to prescribe experimental drugs, whose patients get the drugs for free as long as they're willing to be guinea pigs.
The issue is a real one, and the movie hooks us with the promise of being that rare cinematic hybrid: a horror story with a message. The film's pivotal scene, a disturbingly violent episode by a laconic Emily, is as chilling as any this year.
Soon, though, we learn more about Emily's beautiful former psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and we discover that lust and greed, not prescription drugs, may be at the heart of the nightmare.
The performances are too strong to completely undo Effects, and Soderbergh is a master of striking visuals.
Mara, in particular, shines as a woman whose heavenly life becomes a sudden hell. Her sleepy eyes and tiny frame ooze vulnerability, especially when she's seeking help from a medical industry that long ago forgot its Hippocratic oath to do no harm.
Law, too, is terrific as a doctor caught between making a living and making his patients better, and Tatum shows he's more than a torso on a dance pole, as he was in last year's hit Magic Mike.
But by the movie's second act, Effects has become more of a sexually charged whodunnit along the lines of Basic Instinct, without the hot sex.
If anything, the movie descends into a TV-grade police procedural, with twists so sharp and a plot so convoluted you may need meds to clear your head.
It's also surprisingly humorless -- even depressing. For similar effect, take two Law & Orders and you'll feel fine by morning.