Thursday, 14 March 2013

Side Effects

Side Effects

May cause drowsiness

 “Medication.  Medication.  Medication.
That’s what you need.
If you wanna be the best,
and you wanna beat the rest.
Oo-ooh!  Medication’s what you need.”

These weren’t the actual lyrics to BBC1’s Record Breakers theme song but, if you’re of a certain age, you may well have sang them in the school playground and it’s our increasing reliance on medication that lies at the heart of Steven Soderbergh’s new thriller Side Effects.

When her husband, disgraced insider trader Martin (Channing Tatum), is released after serving a four-year sentence, highly-strung Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) struggles to adjust to his return and slips into depression. 

After an abortive suicide attempt (she drives her car straight into a wall), Emily finds herself under the care of slick but caring psychiatrist Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).  After consulting with Emily’s previous therapist, Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Banks prescribes Emily the newly approved wonder drug, antidepressant Ablixa. 

At first, the drug does indeed work wonders but every drug has side effects and while Martin has few complaints about Emily’s vastly increased, rampant libido, her new habit of sleepwalking is a little more disturbing, Emily entering fugue states which see her prepare breakfast in the middle of the night or zone out and forget to get off the train and go to work. 

Concerned, Banks proposes changing her medication but Emily is adamant the drug is working for her, that it’s her best chance at a normal life.  Then, in a trance-like state, she commits a shocking act of violence and finds herself on trial for murder.  As Emily’s life unravels, Banks finds himself in the firing line…

Side Effects should probably come with its own prescription warning listing the side effects that may result from watching Side Effects. 

Warning!  Watching Side Effects may cause drowsiness during its flabby middle third. 

Warning!  Watching Side Effects may cause disorientation as it shifts gears halfway through and goes from being an exposé of the drug industry to being a fairly obvious mystery thriller.

Warning!  While watching Side Effects, you may experience extreme déjà vu as the plot is reminiscent of a reheated episode of Midsomer Murders.  Albeit classier.  Maybe Lewis then rather than Midsomer.  But you’ve definitely seen this potboiling plot before.

Warning!  If you’re planning to watch Side Effects, don’t watch the trailer, which, like the trailer for the recent Broken City, reveals enough plot in two minutes to allow a ten-year old whose spent their life in a cave in the Andes to forecast every twist and turn in its 106 minutes.

With Side Effects being Steven Soderbergh’s alleged directorial swan song, he’s publicly said this will be his last film, this seems as good a time to commit critical heresy and ask the one question no one’s asking: are we really going to miss him? 

From his earlier, masturbatory work (Sex, Lies And Videotape, Kafka, Schizopolis) through films like Erin Brockovich and Traffic, from his “ironic” modern Rat Pack movies (Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen) to the wintry narcissism of more recent films like The Girlfriend Experience and Magic Mike, Soderbergh’s films have been mostly glossy, smart, good-looking affairs that often feel emotionally vacuous, chic and elegant but uninvolving.  He’s made 25 films in 25 years and dipped his trotters in genres as diverse as Sci-Fi (Solaris), Crime (The Limey), Action (Haywire) and Noir (The Underneath, The Good German) but be honest; how many of his films have actually moved you?

Like most of Soderbergh’s oeuvre, Side Effects is slick, stylish, clever and handsome but it never quite engages you on an emotional level.  The first third or so charting Emily’s battle with depression and her increasing dependence on the quick-fix solution of antidepressants feels like an exposé of corporate healthcare and big pharma (you mean, drug companies court doctors by wining and dining them and paying them for their involvement in trials?  I feel so used…), without actually addressing the real issues or acknowledging the often life-saving benefits of treatment.  Statistically, 13-15% of us reading this right now are probably taking an SSRI or SSNI but Side Effects never really engages with this fact, preferring instead the tried and tested “pill-popping baaaaad!” route.

Then, as Emily faces prison and Banks faces financial and personal ruin, Side Effects transforms itself into a fairly obvious, pedestrian mystery thriller that offers few surprises but holds your attention thanks to Soderbergh’s machine-tooled precision, his surface gloss and good performances from it’s protagonists.  As Emily, Rooney Mara gets to display a little more range than she did as lesbian Goth avenger Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s The Girl With The iPhone, Catherine Zeta-Jones is obviously relishing her ice queen role and while the idea of lovable lummox Channing Tatum as a financial whizz-kid is as believable and perverse as casting Barbara Streisand as a beautiful $500-an-hour hooker (yup, you read that right, $500. An hour!) in 1987’s Nuts, he’s a charming and sympathetic presence (unlike Babs.  Seriously, $500?).  Perhaps the best thing about Side Effects however is it reminds you just how good an actor Jude Law is.  Handsome and charismatic, he’s often called upon to be little more than a smug, arrogant smirk.  Here he manages the near impossible making a rich, well-educated, entitled, middle class psychiatrist, fighting to maintain his privileged lifestyle, not only a sympathetic but likable protagonist.

Nowhere near as smart as it thinks it with a final, punitive twist that feels more than a little misogynistic, Side Effects is an enjoyable slice of glitter.  If this really is Soderbergh’s final film however, you’d think he’d have aimed for something a little less forgettable…

David Watson

Directed by:
Written by:
Produced by:
Crime, Drama, Thriller
1 hour 46 minutes
UK Cinema Release Date:
Friday 8th March 

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