Watching “Side Effects”
Steven Soderbergh’s new film “Side Effects” is a chilly, contemporary film noir that is smart and provocative, but also silly and implausible. It’s sharper than most films, but could be a little sharper. I liked it, but not as much as I would have liked. Some critics have described “Side Effects” as Hitchcockian, but I don’t think Soderbergh or his film belong in quite the same class.
“Side Effects” focuses on a depressed young woman named Emily (Rooney Mara), whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released after four years in prison for insider trading. The transition isn’t easy, and one day Emily presses on the gas and slams her car into the wall of the parking garage. She is hospitalized, and meets a sympathetic psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who agrees to release her if she’ll undergo therapy with him. He prescribes her a series of anti-depressants, but none are effective, until she tries a drug called Ablixa. Ablixa works really well, but has one big side effect: It causes sleepwalking. And when SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! Emily stabs her husband to death, she claims she doesn’t remember a thing because she was sleepwalking. This seems fairly straightforward, but of course there are some nasty twists and turns, and not everything is as it seems.
In its first half, “Side Effects” is an intriguing and cynical look at how modern-day psychiatry works. We see Jonathan Banks agreeing to offer his patients a new, unapproved drug in exchange for $50,000 from the drug company, and we see him giving antidepressants to his depressed, out-of-work wife. “Everybody takes them,” he says, in what might be the film’s most chilling scene, because it suggests a world where everyone’s sad and everyone takes drugs to stop feeling sad. One of the film’s more intriguing characters is Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the psychiatrist who treated Emily for depression prior to Martin’s stint in prison. She gives Jonathan advice, and tries to make him feel better after his patient kills her husband: “We can’t follow them around taking things out of their hands,” she tells him.
But soon Jonathan begins to suspect there’s more to the story. He discovers that Dr. Siebert has written a paper on Ablixa’s side effects, and wonders why she didn’t tell him. He learns that Emily put on her seatbelt before driving into the wall. He questions whether the murder case is part of a grand conspiracy to raise the stock price of a rival antidepressant. Of course, everybody else thinks he’s nuts. At this point, the film starts to fly off the rails, and Emily becomes a ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT! more traditional femme fatale, rather than a victim. One of the more ironic things about the film is how Martin, the insider-trading husband, is the innocent, while his wife and the psychiatrists are back-stabbing double-crossers.
What keeps “Side Effects” interesting are the social/political issues percolating around the edges: The sinister ways in which drug companies push their product, the control and power doctors have over their patients, the corporatization of mental health treatment. Viewers who are familiar with Soderbergh’s work won’t be surprised to see him explore these themes: His 2011 film “Contagion,” about a global pandemic, featured Law in the role of an unscrupulous journalist with an unsavory relationship with a drug commpany, and his 2009 satire “The Informant!” turned a price-fixing case into a screwball comedy. Even “Magic Mike,” Soderbergh’s summer hit about the life of a male stripper, examined serious issues such as class and the commodification of sex.
Unfortunately, “Side Effects” twists and turns are less interesting than its jaded take on treatment, medicine and modern life in general. In this film, each character is a striver, struggling to obtain the perfect yuppie lifestyle. Martin has vowed to make back all the money he lost, while Jonathan has taken on more and more work to pay for his son’s private school and their swanky new apartment. In a way, these characters aren’t so very different from the high-priced call girl in Soderbergh’s 2009 film “The Girlfriend Experience.”
“Side Effects” is entertaining, well-crafted and stylish, but its impact diminishes quickly. It is a film about superficial people, and the terrible things they sometimes do, which might explain why it’s an easy movie to admire, but a hard one to feel any great passion for. (Which could be said of many Soderbergh movies.)
“Side Effects” is supposedly Soderbergh’s final feature film, though his Liberace biopic, “Beyond the Candelabra,” will air on HBO later this year. I’m a little skeptical — I just can’t quite believe that such a restless and intellectual filmmaker is going to stop making movies forever. I also don’t think “Side Effects” is much of a swan song, and I’d like to see him give it another go.
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