Side Effects (**½ / ****)
Starring: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Director: Steven Soderbergh
If this is indeed director Steven Soderbergh’s last film, then he can’t be accused of not going out with a bang, but the explosion is little more than a loud pop.
Side Effects is a complex picture that takes a look at Big Pharma and our relentless pill-popping culture. We’ve all been subjected at some point to the sheer lunacy in the TV commercials for well over a decade, in which we’re told over and over again that an innocuous little pill is the magic bullet for everything from hair loss to depression (thankfully, there are zero Viagra references to be found in the film), that is if the side effects don’t kill you first. But, as we know, it’s not so much about patients getting better as pockets getting fatter.
Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns could’ve taken this premise alone and stretch it to feature length, but that would’ve been too easy, not to mention preachy. They throw in a murder mystery to go with it, which would have been just fine and makes for a gripping first two acts, but then Burns torches the momentum by bogging down the third act with a ridiculous number of twists and turns that will elicit a “wow” reaction at first glance and then the realization of how silly they really are as they render the proceedings into Law & Order meets Limitless (the forgotten 2011 Bradley Cooper wonder-drug thriller) and reduce to sheer mockery the protagonist’s very real and heartbreaking battle with her emotions at the outset. The big climactic exposition is just lazily dumped out in a heap like a kid overturning his trick-or-treat bag onto the kitchen table. It leaves you with “Oh, come on!” screaming to get out of your chest. At least Soderbergh’s cinematography (credited under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews) frequently dazzles, from the way actors are framed such as submerging star Rooney Mara deep into the lower right of the screen as if her character is literally drowning in her struggles, to an exquisite ground-up vertical shot of her New York apartment building.
Emily Taylor (Mara) is dealing with a case of crippling depression stemming from the incarceration of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum, looking a lot like John Cena), who was nabbed by the Feds four years earlier for insider trading. Emily’s sorry state sees no improvement when he’s released, and she attempts suicide by crashing her BMW head-on into a parking garage wall, but when we see her at the hospital, she complains of a concussion but oddly has no cuts or bruises on her face. She’s referred to a psychiatrist named Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes her a new, experimental antidepressant called Ablixa. (The film isn’t afraid to namedrop actual drugs such as Paxil and Zoloft, the latter which, Emily complains, leaves her dizzy and kills her sex drive.) In fact, during this experimentation period, the drug company is paying Banks a cool fifty grand to study it, giving him good enough reason to push it to Emily.
Naturally, the drug is successful at first, enough to result in a gratuitous full-frontal nude scene from Mara as Emily and Martin make a little whoopie. (Talk about a miracle drug; in contrast, the first time Emily and Martin hit the sheets upon his return home – before she begins the medication- they’re only shot from the chest up.) But it’s not long before what the audience really wants to see begins to kick in. It begins with Emily blasting music and making breakfast at three in the morning, which, it’s revealed, she’s doing in her sleep. and graduates to increasingly odd behavior that begins to strain on the marriage, until she hits rock bottom by committing a grisly murder while supposedly in a blackout state (she can’t remember any of it) and is committed to a psych ward, the prospect of which terrifies her.
The issue with Mara is that while she can definitely act and deliver lines, her face doesn’t share the same vitality as her voice; she’s teetering on the brink of knocking Kristen Stewart off the dead-eyed perch. Mara doesn’t have that ethereal quality of a Mia Wasikowska or Saoirse Ronan; she’s just…there. The gritty role of Emily fits both Mara’s abilities and limitations like an old shoe, and she’s completely believable in the first two reels as someone sinking deeper into the chasm of her affliction, especially in the throes of the Ablixa-induced haze. Though a family member spoiled to me the murder victim in advance, it still made me jump as it just appears out of nowhere.
After she’s locked up, though, Mara falls by the wayside as the picture thereafter focuses on Law, and by the arrival of the conclusion, she’s reduced to little more than listless stares and loud, forced histrionics. There is a brief yet very memorable sequence in which an unraveling Emily argues with a mentally-ill inmate (Nicole Ansari-Cox) over the use of the facility telephone while a receptionist dispassionately watches.
Aside from his sack-hopping with Mara, Tatum doesn’t have much to do as Martin, and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance as Dr. Victoria Siebert, of whom Emily was a past client, is so over the top, right down to her dowdy black-rimmed glasses and suffocating bun that looks like something out of the cliché sexy-secretary-letting-her-hair-down playbook, yet you suspect is concealing something nefarious. Law works overtime bringing sympathy to a character who probably doesn’t deserve it in the first place, as while he provides a much-needed someone for Emily to talk to, it isn’t very long at all when they first met before he’s suggesting medications. Banks’ ex-wife (Vinessa Shaw) and young son are added to the plot so that he can accidentally neglect them when the script calls for it. Banks obsesses over solving the mystery and pieces key elements together so that we can watch with glee when he gets to pull the rug out from characters who deserve it the most. That is, if the audience is also willing to go along for the ride.
© 2013 Jane F. Carlson