Starring Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law
There’s a great film waiting to be made about our pill-popping society and the abhorrent lack of ethics on display, from doctors who try to solve problems one prescription at a time. “Side Effects” isn’t it. It’s a drowsy, dry drama from Steven Soderbergh that uses our society’s obsession with instant gratification as the backdrop for a pretty boring attempt at a thriller. It’s unfortunate, but not unexpected. Soderbergh’s been churning out hit-or-miss fare for the last decade. Much like his last attempt at tension (“Contagion”), “Side Effects” is underwhelming—hardly terrible, but nothing to get excited about.
The story follows the mental misadventures of Emily (Rooney Mara), a chronically depressed twentysomething dealing with a laundry list of life issues. Her husband (Channing Tatum) has recently been released from prison after a four-year stint for insider trading. Rebuilding their life is proving particularly stressful for Emily—so much so, she one day decides to drive her car into a brick wall. This episode brings her to the attention of a psychiatrist, Doctor Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who begins to treat her for severe depression.
Doctor Banks is a typical man of medicine: well-intentioned but prone to look for the easy way out. He starts Emily on a series of anti-depressants. When one doesn’t work, he switches her to another—and then another. Rather than deal with the issues at hand, he moves her from one prescription to the next, trying to find the right combination of pills to correct Emily’s lingering sadness. This is hardly typical, of course. Modern psychiatry is funded, financed and fueled by the latest prescription pills. The part of the Hippocratic Oath “do no harm” is glossed over as doctors participate in trials for medicines for which they have no real understanding. Emily experiences some side effects (hence the title), most noticeably some rather intricate sleepwalking. During one of her episodes, she stabs her husband to death. I’m guessing that wasn’t on the warning label.
“Side Effects” isn’t a terrible film; it has a great set-up. It’s the follow-through which ultimately disappoints. The best works of fiction are ones that work within a very plausible scenario. Prescription pill side effects are so engrained into our society that we joke about them. Pills for restless leg syndrome advertise warning of “an unusual urge to gamble” and anti-depressants warn of “ejaculatory failure.” Is the idea of a half-asleep psychotic episode fueled by medication that far off the mark?
After the murder, things start to go bad for Doctor Banks. The media, his family and his partners turn on him as he is turned into a social pariah. His life begins to spin out of control and he finds himself obsessively searching for answers. Then he discovers that the truth might not be as cut and dry as he originally thought. There are some doubts cast on Emily, and the potential for conspiracy arises.
I don’t want to spoil anything. Every good thriller requires a little mystery. The first two acts are fairly engaging. The mystery is set up well, and the characters are given time to develop. The third act is where everything falls apart.
Soderbergh is a great director, but thrillers don’t seem to be his bag. His filming style is voyeuristic and detached, and his greatest problem with the genre has been a lack of emotional resonance. Like “Contagion,” “Side Effects” lacks an identifiable character and emotional engagement. His low-fi approach is always interesting, but a psychological thriller benefits from a more amped-up avenue. Soderbergh has created a very stylish but utterly substance-less piece.
Doctor Banks is never allowed to be completely destroyed. His life crumbles around him, but we never see it or feel it. Sure, his wife walks out, and he’s given a handful of minutes to raise his voice, but I never believed this was a guy who had lost everything. Rooney Mara plays vacant well, but has a pretty mediocre presence. Catherine Zeta-Jones shows up wearing a pair of glasses to try and make her appear smart; it doesn’t work. The best thing I can say about Channing Tatum: I got to watch him die.
Some directors are just not well-suited for this kind of material. “Side Effects” is the kind of film that would have benefited from an ounce or two of pure pasteurized cheese. Soderbergh isn’t that kind of director; he’s a cerebral guy who is better at constructing a narrative. He needs to work more toward creating tension and giving us the kind of scenery-chewing performances required of good film noir.