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It was only a matter of time before Hollywood, where antidepressants are common as after-dinner mints, turned them into a high-stakes movie thriller. That film, called “Side Effects,” is directed by Steven Soderbergh, and set for release by Open Road Films on Feb. 8. Its stars include Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Its release has come with a side effect of its own: the announced retirement of Mr. Soderbergh, an unusually prolific director since the debut of his “Sex, Lies and Videotape” in 1989, who continues to insist “Side Effects” will be his last film. Speaking by telephone from New York on Sunday he said that he will now turn to painting, book writing, stage work or long-form television — almost anything but another feature.
“It will be the last for a long time,” he said. If so, Mr. Soderbergh’s (perhaps) final film will be an attempt at a classic screen thriller, which has become rarer as Hollywood focuses on vast fantasies like, say, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” while sprinkling in politically programmed movies that are, like the anti-fracking film “Promised Land,” predictable in their messaging.
Anything but predictable, “Side Effects” is embedded in a world of psychiatric medicine that has become deeply familiar to the tens of millions of individuals who use commonly prescribed mood-altering drugs. Zoloft, Prozac, Wellbutrin, Effexor — they’re all mentioned by name in the film.
Emily Taylor, portrayed by Ms. Mara, has waited faithfully for her husband, played by Mr. Tatum, to return from prison, where he has been locked up for insider trading. She is thrilled, but nervous, and suffers from depression.
Jude Law, a Manhattan psychiatrist, treats her with Ablixa. It is a fictional drug that is closely modeled on real ones, down to the rosy television commercials and the dizzying litany of possible side effects. (Ms. Zeta-Jones is a professional peer of Mr. Law.)
But things go badly. Just as on the warning labels. “I’ve seen people undergoing side effects of these medications that cause them to do all kinds of things,” said Dr. Sasha Bardey, a psychiatrist who is a clinical instructor at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, and is a co-producer of “Side Effects.”
The film’s story, in fact, was born of Dr. Bardey’s experiences in the Bellevue Hospital prison ward, where he began working more than 20 years ago with extremely ill patients, many of whom were sent from the Rikers Island jail complex for treatment. Scott Z. Burns, who wrote “Side Effects,” had spent time at Bellevue while working on the short-lived “Wonderland” television series, observed Dr. Bardey and became a friend.
Eventually the two decided to create a film story at the intersection of psychiatry and crime and saw the American population’s fast-growing attraction to antidepressants as the sweet spot.
“We live in a world where everybody wants a quick fix for their problems,” said Dr. Bardey, who spoke by telephone on Friday, after seeing a waiting room full of patients. The proliferation of antidepressants, he said, has made them a kind of cure-all, but has vastly multiplied their ill effects among people who only a decade ago might not have been considered sick enough to need them.
Mr. Burns, who is known as the writer of films like Mr. Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” and a producer of “An Inconvenient Truth,” initially wrote his script, once titled “Bitter Pill,” as something he intended to direct. For a time the project was owned by Disney’s Miramax unit. But Miramax shut down production and was sold, and alternate financing didn’t surface.
Finally, Mr. Soderbergh said, by Mr. Burns’s recollection: “I’ve always loved that script. What if I did it as my last film?”
Mr. Soderbergh said the film, which cost just over $20 million, was born amid the frustration both he and Mr. Burns felt at seeing their planned “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” spy movie fall apart at Warner Brothers in 2011. “Behind the Candelabra,” Mr. Soderbergh’s HBO film about the pianist Liberace, will follow “Side Effects” and will be released in theaters abroad, he said.
In a recent interview with the Web site The Wrap, Mr. Soderbergh said he was shocked that Hollywood’s film studios rejected “Behind the Candelabra,” in which Michael Douglas and Matt Damon star in a story about Liberace’s love affair with Scott Thorson, as being “too gay.” Speaking on Sunday, however, Mr. Soderbergh emphasized that his retirement was part of a career shift he had been planning for five years.
From the beginning “Side Effects” was constructed to avoid potential conflicts with the giant companies that make and sell real drugs. “I spent more time on the phone with my lawyer on this than on all my others movies combined,” Mr. Burns said.
With help from Mr. Bardey, Ablixa, a brand name for the equally fictional compound “alipazone,” was designed with its own set of side effects and even a fake Web site. The site looks real enough to have provoked a flurry of interest, or more viral shenanigans, on various health-oriented sites. “Have any ladies here used it?” asks a post on one online women’s health forum.
The movie also refers to a fictional study drug, Delatrex. But “the rest is all real,” Dr. Bardey said. Kaelan Hollon, a representative of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a drug industry trade group, said her organization was not contacted by those who made “Side Effects” and had not “heard much about the movie.” In a statement on Monday the association said its members remained strongly committed to the development of new drugs, including 187 medicines now being developed to aid about 60 million patients who have some form of mental illness in the United States.
How the medical world receives “Side Effects” may depend on whether doctors and others actually pay attention to its trap-door plot. One medical professional who viewed it a recent screening in New York nearly walked out, until he suddenly saw where the film was going.
“He was so worked up, he said ‘I almost had to get out of my seat,’ ” Mr. Burns said. “He had been played.” Dr. Bardey acknowledged that the film relies on an unlikely, though not impossible, situation that finds Mr. Law’s character continuing to treat a patient while serving as an expert witness in her criminal case.
But Mr. Burns described that as part of the fun, such as it is, in a story that is meant to recall provocative thrillers — water cooler movies — like “Fatal Attraction,” “Basic Instinct” or even older films. “This is my attempt to create a modern noir,” Mr. Burns said. “It’s kind of a Hitchcock sort of thing.”
Mr. Soderbergh said his own experience with mood-altering prescriptions extended only as far as the beta-blocker Inderal, which he has used, after being tipped to it by a fellow film director, to reduce anxiety before speaking engagements. “That’s a miracle drug,” he said.