Steven Soderbergh wants it both ways, to lure you into the theater with the promise of a simple virus outbreak thriller and then point out the ruin and inadequacy of public health care, to tease your prurient interests with male strippers and then turn it into a numbed, downbeat drama about the recession. So you shouldn't be surprised when I tell you that Side Effects is more than what it's willing to initially reveal about itself.
These are the details I can tell you: a young married Manhattan couple (Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum) is separated for four years while he's in prison for insider trading and his release only makes her more vacant-eyed, listless and depressed. She responds to this malaise with a suicide attempt and subsequent rollercoaster ride through various antidepressants provided by her psychiatrist (Jude Law), a man on Big Pharma's payroll as they road test their latest pill on human guinea pigs. This time it's the financial sector sending low-level functionaries to the slaughter and the health care industry wreaking havoc with the lives of suffering people. The world is crashing down all around, and these are the latest victims, the we've-got-money flip-side to Magic Mike.
Then a Very Bad Thing happens. And as that Very Bad Thing's consequences unspool, as more and more people with more and more to lose wind up involved in the thick of its mess, the movie shifts gears and spins off into a few increasingly crazy directions. Suddenly, it's no longer a tonally gray meditation on mental health and Americans trapped inside inhumanely constructed American systems, it's a genre movie with double crosses and secret plots and... well, I won't ruin it. No more plot details follow, promise.
As surprises and weirdnesses and lurid plot points create a landscape of miniature explosions, Soderbergh retains control over the simultaneously bleak, moody, goofy, serious and un-serious momentum. And just as you're complaining, "What? Why?" he wraps up his suddenly complicated caper with an ambiguous bow, well-assisted by the strange motivations of Law's psychiatrist and the chilly, enigmatic presence of Rooney Mara, who wouldn't know sweetness if it sugared itself all over her. That's a compliment, by the way. These are grown-ups, mostly behaving badly, occasionally even worse, in a grown-up movie that still knows its way around pulpy thrills. It'll be a loss if Soderbergh makes good on his promise to quit directing. But that threat seems a little ambiguous, too.