'Side Effects' tells a tale of medicine, big business and murder

Scene from "Side Effects." Stephen Soderbergh's new psychopharmalogical thriller digs into the cozy relationship between doctors and drug companies.

Can an antidepressant lead to murder? Are doctors and drug companies trying to sell us happiness at too high a cost? 

These are among the big questions swirling through Steven Soderbergh's new movie "Side Effects." Soderbergh, the director of “Erin Brokovich” and “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” has said this will be his last theatrical movie. The thriller -- which opens tomorrow -- includes love, betrayal, high finance and the omnipotent, but faceless pharmaceutical industry.

The premise of "Side Effects" is simple: A young woman who is suicidal and desperate is prescribed a hot new drug by her psychiatrist. Without giving anything away, it’s safe to say this character -- Emily Taylor, played by Rooney Mara -- experiences a lot more than dry-mouth and loss of appetite.

The movie is clearly intended to be more suspense story than cautionary tale about the drug industry. There are no scheming pharmaceutical executives who knowingly peddle dangerous drugs to make a profit. Instead, viewers are treated to a more subtle look at the complicated relationship between doctor, patient and drug company.

And screenwriter Scott Z. Burns says it all begins in the doctor’s office.

There are a lot of interest at play in that office. There’s the interest of people who make products and doctors who are trying to make a living. It’s not solely just someone trying to heal you,” he says.

On one hand, Burns says you’ve got people in a rush to feel good.

“We’ve almost criminalized sadness and people want to appear happy,” says Burns.

And a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry eager to sell them a solution.

Taking a page from the marketing manuals for real antidepressants like Zoloft and Prozac, the movie producers cooked up their own pretend drug -- Ablixa.

So you’ve got the drug companies, the patients, now enter the psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks, played by Jude Law. As he seeks the best treatment for his patient, Banks gets advice from colleagues who have financial ties to drug makers. Banks himself has a $50,000 deal with a pharmaceutical firm.

For a reality check on all this, I took a real psychiatrist with me to see the movie.

“As a result of having seen this movie, I realized even though I am not staring the pharmaceutical company in the eye, it is someone who is always present in the minds of both me and my patients,” says Mahendra Bhati, who teaches clinical psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. Some of Bhati’s research is funded by major drug companies.

“It’s made me take a second look at myself and think more closely about my relationship to the pharmaceutical industry," Bhati says.

Movie co-producer Dr. Sasha Bardey -- a psychiatrist in New York -- says that’s the point. Bardey hopes "Side Effects" gets people thinking.

“Are we too dependent on these medications? Are pharmaceutical companies somehow guiding the behavior of psychiatric practitioners,” he asks.

In the real world, those questions are much harder to answer than how one little pill could lead a movie character to murder.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.

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