Los Angeles is gripped by suspense as headlines report an armed and dangerous murderer is on the loose. Former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner has become the kind of dramatic serial killer that turns suspense novels into page turners. The timing is equally dramatic for the highly anticipated February 8 release of “Side Effects.” Directed by Steven Soderbergh, “Side Effects” stars Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum and Vanessa Shaw. The new film’s subject is one of the most serious in new films this year: financial fraud schemes made possible by controversial practices in psychiatry and pharmacology.
Viewers accustomed to the bedside manner of doctors appearing on “Scrubs” or “ER” will get a serious look at what is seriously wrong with the practice of medicine in America today. Jude Law portrays Dr. Jonathan Banks, a Manhattan psychiatrist with an out-of-work wife (Vanessa Shaw) and a lot of debts. Entering stage right are well paid, well dressed, drug company sales representatives with plenty of cash to fund research contracts for new drugs they would like tested with real patients.
The side effects seen in “Side Effects” are very real. The patient played by Rooney Mara actually reads side effects descriptions directly from the labels of prescription drugs as her drug based treatment escalates. As the drama escalates, reports of bizarre and often disturbing reactions by patients using the same new drug accentuate a meltdown by the patient. A dizzying downward spiral in the professional and personal lives of the prescribing doctor churns the plot into a classic psychodrama.
When the story is investigated by reporters, police and district attorneys, the audience sees another kind of meltdown. That is a meltdown in medical practices that raises doubts about the dependability of medical research and the practice of medicine in America today.
While the film is presented as a suspenseful drama, it is based on rigorous research conducted by the team’s medical expert, Dr. Sascha Barday, at large public hospitals. Bardey is a forensic psychiatrist and teaches at NYU Medical Center. He has worked as an expert consultant for “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and is now an expert consultant for “Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit.”
At the cast and production team press conference on January 26 in Beverly Hills, actor Jude Law presented his perspective that "the film raises the issue of relying on medicine for all the wrong reasons." Actress Vanessa Shaw was equally candid in sharing her thoughts about the reasons why America is having to deal with these issues. “Americans lead the way and are more susceptible to it because we need to have what’s more,” she observed in an honest and realistic assessment of how so many Americans associate having more money with happiness.
“Side Effects” opens in theaters nationwide today. This will give audiences a chance to see American cinema move in a bold new direction. Gone are the caring doctors of romance novels and T.V. soaps who always know best. They are shown side by side with Wall Street bankers whose own insecurities and inner conflicts are portrayed on screen through the vision of a drugged patient. The film also demonstrates how suspenseful, well written dramas can show general audiences serious content that used to be reserved for documentaries and investigative reporting.
Will this pioneering film produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura start a new trend? That question is just one more element of suspense that makes the film well worth watching.