Film Review: Side Effects (2013)

Side Effects is a delicious piece of cinema, one which gradually reveals hidden layers that play to one’s base instincts. Now, that being said, the film is also preposterous. Additionally, its lurid treatment of the culture of psychiatry and big pharmacy can’t entirely obfuscate a rather grating, moralizing tone. It’s somewhat of a disappointment that director Steven Soderbergh (with his penultimate film) wasn’t able to rise above such tactics. Still, the great acting and powerhouse direction keeps Side Effects engaging throughout, even in its most dubious of moments.

Rooney Mara (who has risen to stardom in the last few years through the work of David Fincher) plays Emily Taylor, the lead role of Soderbergh’s thriller. Emily is afflicted with what appears initially to be a major case of the sads. But, very early on we come to understand that Emily isn’t just suffering from mere common unhappiness; she has full-blown clinical depression.

This is not necessarily shocking considering the character’s circumstances. In the film’s opening scene we watch as Emily goes to meet her husband Martin (played efficiently enough by a stoic Channing Tatum), who has been incarcerated for insider trading and is due to soon be released from the big house. Once he’s sprung Emily begins to sink deeper into her malaise, and soon makes an attempt to take her own life.

Enter Jude Law’s Dr. Jonathan Banks, a psychiatrist who is overstretched both economically and personally. After Emily is admitted to the hospital where he works, he begins treating her regularly. This, in addition to serving as a consulting doctor for an experimental antidepressant trial, begins to put pressure on his family life. Mainly, it complicates matters with his wife Deirde (Vanessa Shaw), a woman so high-strung that her butt cheeks could probably turn coal into diamonds.

This is however simply the tip of the iceberg in regards to Side Effects’ storyline. As the film transitions into its third act the entire thematic tone of the story is profoundly transformed. What at first glance appeared to be little more than a soulful rumination on pharmaceuticals and mental illness, begins to expand exponentially. Soon, the characters (and the audience) is embroiled in a gritty, almost noirish tale of greed, lust and murder, where nothing is what it seems.

Similar to the director’s earlier efforts like Haywire and Contagion, Side Effects, especially towards the end, feels like a B-film given A-list dressings. For example, the cast is headlined by a number of dramatic heavy-hitters, and proves itself to be invaluable in grounding the more nonsensical aspects of the storytelling. As the film’s leading lady Mara is spectacular, gradually unpacking a character who is wildly nebulous to all around her. As the film goes on the shifting nature of her character’s identity becomes more and more implausible from a storytelling or logical perspective. It is a testament to the actress’s ability that her scenes still ring true on an emotional level.

Catherine Zeta-Jones – who now seems relegated to appearing in stinkers like No Reservations and Rock of Ages – plays a small albeit critical role in the film as well. Her character, Dr. Victoria Siebert, is also a head-shrinker. However, Zeta-Jones performance is so utterly bizarre that anyone unfortunate enough to be treated by her character would surely find themselves on the face-track to a padded cell. It’s clear within her very first scene that there is something brewing underneath her composed veneer of professionalism. Within Soderbergh’s film – which is apparently striving for pseudo-realism – it just doesn’t wash.

Conversely, Jude Law, with a widow’s peak that has no end in sight, is the force that allows the film to gel into a satisfying piece of entertainment. Law’s good doctor character initially appears to be little more than a stuffed shirt, an auxiliary player in a landscape dominated by Mara’s Emily. However, like the film’s thematic tone, Law’s character changes dramatically over the course of the story, traveling a course blazed by many a Hitchcockian leading man. He rises from being a hapless everyman to a bruising, manipulative force by the story’s conclusion.

It’s a virtuoso performance, but one that is also unshowy. In many ways Side Effects is really a testament to the unheralded greatness of Jude Law, something corroborated in a string of films released in the last few years, such as: Dom Hemingway, Sherlock Holmes 1 and 2, Contagion, Repo Men, and especially Anna Karenina. In Side Effects everything about his performance works. You buy him as the taxed shrink, as the stressed out husband and step-father, and you even buy his descent into being a player in a frantic, criminal underworld.

Of course, the two strong performances delivered by Mara and Law would be wasted (or at least muted) without the confident directorial hand of Soderbergh. Much of the director’s aesthetic palette reemerges here, such as deeply saturated (or desaturated) color schemes, prevalent soft focus, and a propulsive use of montage, music and voice-over. All of this coalesces into a film that possesses terrific momentum and a sense of elegant specificity.

What’s unfortunate is that these positive attributes cannot transcend the problematic nature of Scott Z. Burns script, which occasionally feels too on-the-nose in its disdain for pharmaceuticals and psychiatrists. Additionally, Soderbergh includes a sequence near the end of the film which serves as a revealing summation for all the story’s clandestine twists and turns. It’s a moment that feels jarringly fake, hackneyed even, almost like something you would see in a terrible Sherlock Holmes serial.

Even these missteps aren’t enough to derail the film, which is highly communicative regarding Soderbergh’s main cinematic preoccupation: the ubiquity of human deceit. Every character is lying in Side Effects, either to other people or to themselves. Thankfully, this omnipresent artifice doesn’t extend to the work of the film’s cast and crew; these people are the real deal.

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