July 21st, 2015
In Side Effects, Rooney Mara plays a young woman who is treated for depression with the fictional drug Ablixa.
Photo: Barry Wetcher/Open Road Films
Much like commercials for actual drugs, the ads for director Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects show you something less than the whole picture, leaving out the more nefarious details about exactly what’s going to happen when you consume it.
That’s because sharing too much information about Side Effects, opening in theaters today, can spoil the entire tale – so this review should be fun. But without revealing too much: the film is a psychological thriller that thrills by making audiences question the sanity of nearly every character, even the psychologists, and ultimately themselves.
A non-spoilery synopsis of Side Effects goes something like this: Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is a young woman whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) was recently released from prison after completing a four-year sentence for insider trading. She’s happy to have him back, but she struggles with depression and anxiety about her future.
Enter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law): A compassionate — perhaps too compassionate – psychiatrist who treats Emily’s condition with a new (fictional) drug called Ablixa that brings her back to life, but has potentially dangerous side effects (dun-dun-DUN!) that could affect her marriage. But the full implication of the drug’s effects don’t become apparent until almost the second act, and the true motivations (and mental states) of everyone involved don’t really come to light until the closing credits.
Thank writer Scott Z. Burns for this bit of trickery, he’s crafted a script where every character on the screen reveals something new with every beat, but yet never quite enough. And credit Sodergbergh for coaxing very nuanced performances out of his cast, particularly Mara, who can turn from sweet ingénue to shades of something much darker on a dime.
(Spoiler alert: Minor plot points to follow.)
At its core, Side Effects is that it is a movie about mental health is treated in the U.S., both by doctors and how it’s dealt with in society. Burns wrote Side Effects with the medical advice of forensic psychologist Sasha Bardey and it shows: the doctors and patients on screen address real issues of boundaries, ethics, and quandaries of treatment, including what happens when doctors make mistakes and things go wrong.
There’s a moment when Dr. Banks’ partners fret about the negative attention brought to their practice after an incident relating to Emily’s medication — psychiatry is, after all, a profession and the appearance of malpractice is bad for business — and he responds that he can’t be responsible for an unforeseen effect of a new drug. ”That may be how rational people see it,” his partner retorts. “But we don’t see a great many rational people here.”
If Side Effects falters anywhere, it’s by focusing more deeply on psychology and psychiatry than the story requires. For all of the smart observations and the fascinating questions the film poses about the ethical minefield involved with treating mental health and prescribing happy pills, and ethics, many of those issues are left hanging, or answered in ways that are entertaining — but not necessarily intellectually satisfying.
However, these gripes are cerebral, not cinematic, and as a movie Side Effects delivers. Weaving marital problems and insider trading into a crime thriller about mental health and the pharmaceutical industry isn’t exactly easy, but nothing in the film feels forced into place. Driven by some smart performances — Bardey, who also co-produced the film, advised the actors as well as the script — the actions of every player feel believable, even if they seem completely, well, crazy.
Side Effects will reportedly be Soderbergh’s last cinematic feature, so long as he doesn’t pull a Jay-Z and change his mind about stepping away from film. That makes Side Effects an interesting note for him to end on. In a career that’s spanned fantastic thought-provoking flicks like Traffic and Erin Brockovich and fun, flashy fare like the Ocean’s movies and last summer’s Magic Mike, it seems as though he wanted to leave audiences with one to grow on. (Though, technically, he’ll be leaving them with his Liberace film Behind the Candelabra, which will be airing on HBO after studios reportedly rejected it for being “too gay.”)
Side Effects mostly fills that bill — it’s intriguing, full of good performances, and rife with the lush shots the director is known for — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a little lacking. It’s a great psychological thriller that spends a little too much time on psychology and not enough on thrills.
WIRED Deft performances by Rooney Mara, Jude Law, and Catherine Zeta-Jones; smart plot twists; Soderbergh’s fantastic eye for detail in any given shot.
TIRED A lot of psychology, not enough thriller. [via wired]
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