I can still remember the first time I saw the trailer for Side Effects. Leaving aside that corny-as-hell logline (“In some instances, death may occur.” Gag me.), I remember thinking that it was an incomprehensible mess that told me absolutely nothing about the film’s premise or plot. That said, the trailer did make it clear that the movie had a superlative cast under the direction of Steven Soderbergh. Say what you will about Soderbergh — he seems like a very eccentric person and his filmography is quite uneven in quality — but far be it from anyone to say that his work is boring. Moreover, the guy’s been on something of a tear lately: He released Haywire and Magic Mike last year, both of which were good to great, depending on who you ask.
Additionally, it appeared that Soderbergh would be reuniting with Scott Z. Burns after they collaborated on Contagion a few years back. A lot of critics called that one a great film. Personally, I’d call it a good film marred by glaring flaws (I still maintain that Kate Winslet played the most incompetent CDC official in all of past, present, or fiction). Nevertheless, I was intrigued to see these two examine the vast and complicated world of medical research from a different angle.
Except they didn’t. Sort of. Maybe?
The thing about Side Effects is that it tells two very different stories. One story is about Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young woman who fell in love with the wealthy and charismatic Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum). The two had only been married a year when Martin was arrested for insider trading, which naturally led to all of their wealth and property getting confiscated by the feds. We open four years later, when Martin is released from prison and eager to get his life back on straight.
Unfortunately, Emily has a history of depression. She’s kept it together quite well, though recent stresses appear to have caused a relapse. After a couple of sudden-onset suicide attempts, Emily goes in for psychiatric treatments and eventually participates in a trial for Ablixa, a new anti-depressant drug.
The second story is about Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), the psychiatrist who treats Emily. He has a wife (Deirdre Banks, played by Vinessa Shaw) who’s just lost her job, and a stepson being put through private school. As such, he eagerly takes a whole ton of money to participate in a new study for Ablixa, and eventually recruits Emily for the trial.
As you might expect, the experimental drug causes things to go horribly awry. I won’t spoil exactly what happens — it’s a very shocking turn of events, to be sure — except to say that Emily does something awful, and she may or may not have been under the influence of Ablixa at the time.
For a while, this leads to a great variety of fascinating questions. If someone commits a crime without any knowledge, intent, or memory of the incident, can they be held accountable? If the incident happens as a result of the drug, do you blame the patient who took it, the pharmaceutical company that made it, or the doctor who prescribed it? That isn’t even getting started on how the incident affects the doctor, of course: When Jon’s patient and his name are getting splashed all over the news, how are any of his other patients going to talk about anything else?
(Side note: In light of recent events, I should point out that gun control is never among the issues addressed. The film never even mentions the matter of firearms in the hands of the mentally ill or chronically depressed, and thank goodness for that.)
Before going further, I’d like to point out that the film is very good on a technical level. The dialogue is wonderfully sharp. Thomas Newman’s score is superb. The camerawork is solid and loaded with masterful shot compositions. Soderbergh still has a strange proclivity toward piss-colored cinematography, but that isn’t nearly as prominent or annoying here as it was is in, say, Magic Mike.
Additionally, the actors are all wonderful. Channing Tatum succeeds in crafting a sympathetic character, which is no small feat with regards to a convicted white-collar criminal. Jude Law turns in a fascinating performance, and Rooney Mara proves herself an A-level talent beyond any doubt.
Sadly, the weak link in the cast is Catherine Zeta-Jones. Then again, given her work over the past few years (No Reservations, Lay the Favorite, Playing for Keeps, her unrepentently campy turn in Rock of Ages, her part in the upcoming Red 2, etc.), I’d guess that Zeta-Jones is at the point in her career when she’s simply run out of fucks to give. I’ll grant that her character is transparently evil from start to finish, but Zeta-Jones’ performance takes a two-dimensional villain and only makes her more cartoonish. Then again, that’s really just a symptom of the greater problem with this film.
At first, the film appears to be a very interesting story about a woman whose dependence on medication comes to disastrous and unforeseen results. It’s a story that asks how she got to that point and how to sort out the consequences. But as the film progresses, slowly but surely, the narrative shifts its focus away from Emily and onto Jonathan, pretending that he was meant to be the protagonist all along. I’m not sure I could point out precisely where this happens, but there came a point when I stopped watching a meditation on the pharmaceutical industry and started watching a straight-up conspiracy thriller.
I’m as much a fan of genre-blending films as the next movie geek, but this particular attempt backfires in so many ways. What it comes down to is that these two genres are totally and completely incompatible. A character drama about such a complex issue as the pharmaceutical industry should examine the topic from as many angles as possible. It should offer new and intelligent arguments, leaving the audience with something to think about after the credits have rolled. By contrast, thrillers and mysteries have to be totally clear-cut. We need to know who the victim is, who the hero is, who the villain turns out to be, how the villain gets caught, what the villain’s plot was, how and why it was carried out, etc.
In other words, one genre thrives on its ambiguity and the other can only thrive by cutting ambiguity out of the picture entirely.
Moreover, another vital part of a character drama is in… well, the characters. The audience has to feel like they’re watching the lives of actual flesh-and-blood people. For a time, the movie actually provided this illusion. But then Jon’s storyline took over, and every single character in the film seemed to have imploded for how quickly they went from 3D to 2D. Not only does this damage the film’s “character drama” aspect, but it damages the meditations on pharmaceuticals as well: How can we take comments on a real-world problem seriously when they’re being presented in such a heightened and blatantly fictional manner?
To be fair, it’s worth repeating that the film is great on a technical level. When the movie presents a terrifying and all-too-possible scenario, it asks a great deal of fascinating questions about the subject and the greater issue at hand. When the movie is acting like a conspiracy thriller, it uses masterful sleight of hand to set up and reveal the complicated plot in some very clever ways. But then these two approaches collide, and one invariably ends up making the other totally irrelevant.
I don’t mean to say that Side Effects is a bad movie. I mean to say that it’s two good movies forced to share screen time together, despite being so incompatible that they ultimately cancel each other out. The intellectual character drama is by far the more interesting of the two, yet it’s tossed to the wayside and made completely irrelevant by the conspiracy thriller. Not since Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter have I seen a movie work so hard to defeat itself.
If this film had just chosen an approach and stuck with it, I’m sure this would’ve ended up as a slam dunk. As it is, I can still give the film a very hesitant recommendation. The performances and the technical craft on display are all wonderful, and there are enough good story moments that maybe you’ll find something in here to enjoy.
That said, there’s absolutely no reason to pay full price for a theatrical screening. You could wait for a rental or a second-run screening and be much better off for it.