Jonathan Romney on Side Effects: Sex, lies and big pharma

If this ingenious drugs drama is Soderbergh's final film, then he's going out on a high

So, farewell then (supposedly) Steven Soderbergh. America's most prolific film-maker claims that he's hanging up his megaphone. He has only one more movie up his sleeve, for TV – starring Michael Douglas as Liberace, gawd save us – and then we can all catch up with making sense of Soderbergh's implausibly diverse career. No obvious theme or style dominates the output of this hyper-industrious figure, who's been at once a Hollywood player and an independent; a mainstreamer and an experimenter; a director, producer, writer and, don't forget, a cinematographer and editor, under his twin aliases Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard. You'd think he was trying to make things difficult for us.

Soderbergh's career is genuinely more than the sum of its parts, in that his overall adventure as a shape-shifter is more impressive than many of the individual films. He's made sleek entertainments such as the Oceans trilogy and Out of Sight; earnest state-of-the-world dramas (Contagion, Traffic, Erin Brockovich); sombrely eccentric experiments (The Good German, the heroically odd Kafka); solemn labours of love (Che) and flip oddities (the borderline unwatchable farce Schizopolis). He has sometimes been gratingly off-form, but he's one of contemporary American cinema's few devoted risk-takers.

There is, however, a consistently recurring theme. Many of Soderbergh's films scrutinise the ways in which people are subject to, and sometimes contrive to manipulate, the bigger forces that dominate their lives today: money, power, corporate systems, sexual politics. Soderbergh is an arch-observer, in a detached, sometimes studious way: you see his films and imagine his shelves of research files crammed with New Yorker clippings.

Soderbergh now ends his cinema catalogue with a neat tie-up, in that his career is bracketed by two tightly controlled miniatures for four players. He stepped into the limelight with his 1989 Cannes-winning debut sex, lies and videotape; now he leaves it with a story about sex, lies and pharmaceuticals. Side Effects is a sleek, masterfully executed but entirely unflashy entertainment. It's also one of those films that's practically impossible to review because you can't reveal too much of its sinuously devious plot.

The film begins with bloody footsteps on an apartment floor – then flashes back three months to a young woman named Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) visiting her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) in prison. He's due for release, having served time for insider trading. In a model of brisk, clean storytelling, short scenes follow the pair through Martin's release and return home. All bodes well, until Martin announces that he's in on a shady-sounding Dubai deal. Soon after, the haggard-eyed Emily drives her car into a wall.

In hospital, she comes under the care of a sympathetic psychiatrist, Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who tries to treat her with assorted anti-depressives. Some have unexpected effects – Emily sleepwalks, or gets flamboyantly horny. Then something drastic happens, leading us back to those footprints – and we're suddenly plunged into a tense legal drama involving the extravagantly profitable pharma business and questions of medical and corporate ethics. Side Effects turns out to be not quite the story we expected – then goes on to shift shape and focus yet again.

The four leads – including Catherine Zeta-Jones at her most feline, as another shrink – lend themselves gamely to being shifted around like chess pieces. Mara, so glacially spiky in David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, retains some of that nervous intensity in Alice's alert, fragile manner; it's an intelligent, magnetic performance. As for the notoriously erratic Law, he was dreadful in Soderbergh's Contagion but more than redeems himself here as a smart operator digging himself ever deeper as he tries to extricate himself from a compromising situation.

There's an acidic streak of social satire in the depiction of new anti-depressives being marketed as the latest panacea. In this film's world, pharmaceuticals routinely fill American cupboards; every cocktail party conversation is about the comparative merits of Zoloft and Lexapro.

But on another level, the story is about the economy of knowledge – insider knowledge especially, whether concerning finance, drugs or plot twists. Soderbergh and writer Scott Z Burns are wonderfully stealthy about what they do and don't let on, and when. Like the film's doctors with their pills, they administer information in carefully calibrated doses.

The title is apposite, for the story works its own effects on the side. It's forever dropping hints in plain view that we don't pick up on until later; and its characters, and the lives they lead, are not what they initially seem. In fact, Side Effects proves increasingly cynical, its characters less sympathetic, more manipulative than we at first suspect. The film also turns out to be quite startlingly misogynistic, in a Brian De Palma-like way. But it's classy and ingenious, if somewhat pleased with its own deviousness: one of its most shameless narrative tricks involves, of all things, improper use of a truth drug.

What I like about the storytelling is that Soderbergh and Burns don't waste any element: everything has a part to play, and everything adds up, very satisfyingly (if not, some might think, 100 per cent plausibly). Most American mainstream cinema assumes a kind of ADHD condition in the viewer, as if we only go to the cinema to be lulled half to sleep. Side Effects takes it as read that we actually want to stay awake and alert; in its modest way, this is detox cinema of a very bracing kind.

Critic's Choice

Spanish stalwart Luis Tosar plays a psychopathic concierge in Sleep Tight, a highly effective Barcelona-set chiller. Meanwhile, on London's South Bank, the 27th BFI Lesbian and Gay Film Festival steps out in high style with I Am Divine, a portrait of the John Waters superstar and all-time trash icon (Thursday to 24 March).