Sunday, February 17, 2013
Side Effects Movie Review
Like most avid filmgoers, I too hope Steven Soderbergh isn’t being genuine when he claims Side Effects is his last film before retiring. He is one of the few directors currently working in Hollywood who can elevate a standard genre film above its perceived limitations. Even when he’s off his game, his films are usually very good. Films like Magic Mike and Haywire didn’t exactly set my world on fire, but they would have been utterly forgettable trash in the hands of a lesser artist. Side Effects similarly didn’t have me begging for more, but as a crime thriller in the mode of a lone wolf investigator trying to clear his name I can think of a few worse examples and hardly any better.
Comparisons to Soderbergh’s Contagion are obvious because it’s another similarly conceived slow burn thriller also written by Scott Z. Burns, who made his name co-writing The Bourne Ultimatum. Burns has adopted into his very core the elements of genre screenplay writing that work well and help define them while eschewing the tactics typically employed to fool people into think they’ve seen something interesting. And he gives his characters interesting things to say that, even if they don’t always extend beyond moving the plot along, they don’t make you think of a middle school student with a writing assignment.
The commercials for Side Effects suggest quite a lot about the plot, but conceal even more. It’s virtually impossible to have any meaningful conversation about the film without revealing at least some pertinent details that you may wish to keep hidden. Emily (Rooney Mara) suffers from depression that is only compounded by the recent release from prison of her husband (Channing Tatum) for insider trading. He promises to “get them back where they were.” She doesn’t admit it, but you have to wonder how disappointed she is to have lost the beautiful home in Greenwich, Connecticut, the sailboat, the vacations to Hawaii, the clothes. One night she drives her car full speed into the wall of a parking garage. Then she’s being interviewed in the hospital by Dr. Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist. She becomes his patient. She tries several different anti-depressants. The side effects are too much. After consulting briefly with her previous psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) he prescribes a new drug that causes Emily to begin sleepwalking. Without giving away too much, she does something while sleepwalking that could put her in prison for a long time.
This is where you think the movie is going in one direction, dealing with a wrongly accused young woman who is the victim of the effects of medication on her body and possibly of a doctor who didn’t do the necessary research before prescribing new medication. But Burns’ story is more complex than that and transitions from legal proceedings to suspense thriller and mystery. As Dr. Banks’ life begins to unravel, the result of having his name associated with a potentially psychotic criminal whom he failed to treat properly, he also begins to see oddities in the case. For a while we don’t know if he’s becoming paranoid delusional in his attempt to get his life back or if there really has been a brilliantly conceived plot against him.
As a procedural there’s nothing much new here. We’ve seen this kind of thing before. Banks loses a consulting gig, is in jeopardy with his professional partners, and his family is on the brink of abandoning him as he devotes all his free time to investigation. Even the prosecuting District Attorney isn’t interested in what he has to say. But Burns does an interesting thing first in shifting the role of the protagonist mid-story from Emily to Dr. Banks and then in making the story less about Banks than it is about lies and deception and the motivations behind the fabulous stories we sometimes tell to get what we want.
Although Soderbergh imbues all his films with a distinctive character through his signature cinematography involving color schemes of yellows, reds, and blues, and his use of overlapping dialogue editing style (he performs both job functions on most of his films under the pseudonyms Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard), his recent films have felt more like he serves as the painter realizing another artist’s vision. Yes, filmmaking is a largely collaborative art, but this feels more like a Scott Z. Burns project than anything else. Ultimately I found Side Effects was not entirely convincing when it came to character motivations. Some of the revelations had me scratching my head a little and considering the credulity of it all. You could still do a lot worse for a late winter movie release.