Steven Soderbergh has said that “Side Effects,” (which opened February 8th), will be his last feature film. Let’s hope he’s wrong. With such memorable movies as “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich” (not to mention “Sex, Lies and Videotape”) to his credit, it is sad to think that there won’t be more adult fare like “Side Effects,” starring Jude Law, Mara Rooney ( “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and Catherine Zeta-Jones directed by Soderbergh for thinking movie-goers to enjoy.
The script, (a truly good one, written by Scott Z. Burns), is full of twists and turns. It examines important issues, like the simplistic idea of taking pills to overcome life’s problems. Mara Rooney (Emily Taylor) is the wife of Channing Tatum (Martin Taylor) who was just released from prison after 4 years spent in jail for insider trading. Emily is depressed and suicidal.
Jude Law (Dr. Jonathan Banks) is the psychiatrist charged with treating the young woman, who both drives her car into a wall on purpose and appears to be contemplating jumping into the path of an oncoming subway train at one point. There are so many drugs on the market to treat depressed people and, says the script, “I don’t understand it. You watch the commercials on TV and people are getting better.” But Emily takes one that is in clinical trials (Ablixa) and the drug seems to have devastating side effects.
Nearly every pill advertised on television comes with a quickly-read list of side effects that makes the viewer wonder if the cure is worse than the disease. That’s the way it is in a world filled with Adderoll, Ritalin, Prozac, Zoloft, Thorazine, and so many other drugs that every letter of the alphabet is represented. Forensic psychiatrist Sasha Bardey served as consultant to Soderbergh for the film. There are other issues examined, including marital problems, insider trading, depression, side effects of drugs and many more that I can’t other discuss here without spoiling the plot.
One of the movie’s adult themes is, “What makes us human?” The film articulates the thought that it is consciousness which makes us human and that, to have “intent” (in criminal proceedings) requires consciousness. Without consciousness, there is no intent. So, when a serious crime is committed—one which sends Roony Mara to Wards Island Psychiatric Ward—the defense argues successfully that a combination of biology and circumstance has caused Emily Taylor to be especially sensitive to the side effects of a new anti-depressant Dr. Banks (Jude Law) prescribed, a drug called Ablixa.
So, who’s going to pay? As Dr. Banks’ partners point out to him: “Either way, someone gets punished. Her or you.” But Dr. Banks says, “I don’t understand why this is happening.” He will not let it rest. He wants to get to the bottom of what really happened, if he can.
There is the examination of this issue: “Imagine everything you ever worked for in your life goes belly up one day and then it all disappears.” Can you start over?
Another theme: “Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.”
A third discussion topic: what is the essence of depression? Described as “a poisonous fog bank rolling in on my mind” the film posits the idea that depression is the inability to see any real future. The idea that, “We just can’t start over” becomes a plot point as well.
There are the characteristically great cinematic shots (from Steven Soderbergh himself, credited as Peter Andrews) interspersed throughout what is a complex and convoluted plot that is expertly carried on the slim shoulders of Mara Rooney and Jude Law, with a nice assist from Catherine Zeta-Jones as a psychiatrist (Dr. Victoria Seibert) who had previously treated the suicidal Emily Taylor. In other words: movies for adults, which Soderbergh has become famous for directing.
What impressed me most about the film was its stark contrast to the “Let’s blow up more stuff” school of film-making that seems currently popular. I’m of the old character-driven school of the seventies, and even wrote a book about it (It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now), so of course I loved the plot twists and turns that delve deeply into real human emotions. Complicated issues and examinations, at that.
My only complaint concerning the film would be that we are used to seeing the Powers-That-Be cast as the villains of the piece. On television’s “American Horror Story,” for instance, we root for the poor oppressed patients who are unjustly imprisoned. The “bad guys” are the evil doctors and administrators who imprison hapless patients in nearly all stories with themes like this one. It was a bit different to be rooting for the other side. Once I got used to the concept, I loved this multi-layered, complicated, intellectually and visually stimulating Soderbergh film.