Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Guest Review: Side Effects (2013)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed

Since his arrival in 1989 with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, celebrated director Steven Soderbergh has been nothing if not prolific in his output. Critics argue with some justification that his work is best described as uneven or inconsistent. Though hardly an expert on his career, as a fan of independent, low budget films, I owe him at least a debt of appreciation for his notable contributions in that regard. To be sure, this director has made many complete stinkers, but he’s also made several films I have truly enjoyed. Side Effects, fortunately, falls into that latter category.

Soderbergh films seem to fall into several loosely defined buckets, often spilling over into more than just one. It turns out this film is a suspense thriller in the manner of the great Alfred Hitchcock. Although admittedly a fan of that genre, I think one reason it seems to work so well is its ability to hide that fact by sending up false signals that it would be primarily an “agenda” film exposing the evils of “Big Pharma.” The fact this director has made that type of film helps in the set-up. Let’s consider both its highs and lows.

** spoiler alert **
Plot Synopsis - Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) visits her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) who is finishing up a four year prison sentence for insider trading. Although outwardly supportive, she apparently had lost more than her incredibly exalted financial status; she seems to be suffering from significant depression.

After Martin’s release Emily purposely crashes her car into a parking garage wall. In the ER, she’s interviewed by psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). He reluctantly agrees to discharge her if she comes back for further treatment, and he prescribes one of the SSRI anti-depressant drugs. Emily tells him she was previously treated for depression by Dr.Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Banks consults Siebert who suggests he consider one of the brand new drugs, the fictional Ablixa. When Emily suffers a melt down while attending a business function with Martin, Banks agrees to prescribe Ablixa. It appears to significantly help, but carries its own unique set of side effects.

Martin awakes to see Emily setting the table for three in the middle of the night while the stereo blasts music. It seems one of Ablixa’s side effects is sleepwalking. They both meet with Dr. Banks, but Emily refuses to go off Ablixa, and he agrees to let her continue with the drug, using other treatments for the sleepwalking. One night, as Martin returns to the apartment for dinner, he finds the table again set for three. Confronting Emily, she turns and stabs him to death. Dr. Banks is recruited as an expert consultant by both prosecution and defense. A plea bargain is reached in which Emily is not guilty of murder, but must be institutionalized. Future release is subject to a doctor’s sign-off.

Dr. Banks finds that he has received tremendously unfavorable publicity as a result of the trial. As the A.D.A. points out, Emily is either a murderer or a victim of her medical treatment, and either way, someone has to pay. He begins to lose patients, is forced to resign from a lucrative consulting gig, and ultimately is forced out by his partners. Even Banks’ wife begins to doubt him. As his career and marriage rapidly disintegrate, he finds evidence that perhaps a murder was committed after all. Banks becomes obsessed with proving the wrong person has been “made to pay.” When he presents his concerns to the A.D.A., he is reminded double jeopardy applies, and he should just walk away. To reveal exactly what happens, who was involved, and how it resolves would seem a dis-service to potential viewers.
Why Does The Film Work So Well?
First and foremost, it is an excellent tight script. This film is only an hour and forty-five minutes, and the writers keep the story moving despite a lack of real action. Every scene is lean and purposeful with key information being disseminated just by visuals and mood creation. More importantly, it is a suspense movie that manages to disguise where it is heading for a long, long time. One reviewer even labeled that disguise as the “twist” itself. The story actually touches on some interesting issues regarding “big pharma” and the reliance of modern medicine in this country to depend so heavily on prescription drugs. That is not the true focus of the film, however, and that issue functions, in a way, almost as a kind of MacGuffin. Secondly, the soundtrack by Thomas Newman is extremely compelling and well matched to the scenes in which it is used.

The acting is uniformly excellent. To be sure Law, Mara, and Zeta-Jones do the heavy lifting, and all do it well. Mara has the biggest challenge being alternately sympathetic and a bit creepy. But I couldn’t help noticing just how good some of the actors were in minor roles. Most notable to me were Ann Dowd (Compliance) as Martin’s mother, Polly Draper (Thirtysomething) as Emily’s boss, Michael Nathanson as the A.D.A., and veteran character actor Peter Friedman as the senior partner in Banks’ practice.
Are There Any Negatives Or Is It Really All That?
For this plot to work, the viewer is asked to stretch the bounds of credibility, particularly regarding certain key relationships, and motivations of characters to act in a particular way. Specifically, questions of how Emily develops her relationships with Martin and Dr. Siebert may leave viewers scratching their heads. But, if one looks at most films of this genre in retrospect, almost all present certain facts that just don’t seem to quite make sense realistically. Even if we look at a classic such as North By Northwest, we can easily question the plausibility of some of the events required by that plot. And, what Side Effects does quite well is present its own inconsistencies in a manner that still permits you to enjoy the ride.
So Is This A Must See?
Well, yes, at least in my book. In an era of Man of Steel and Promised Land, damn right it’s worth it to see this one now, and not wait until it comes to MGM Classics. This is particularly true if you like the film noir suspense genre.

36 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks for the excellent review. I very much want to see this. The ads attracted me. Plus, I've found that when Soderbergh is on, he's great -- though when he's not, he stinks.

Tennessee Jed said...

well Andrew, as a lawyer, there are some elements of the plot that you will probably see through. That said, the pacing and suspense were sufficiently good to keep a layman like myself from being distracted by them until later after I thought about it. I wouldn't say he is great here, but he did make the kind of film I enjoyed, something I seem to have to work at thee days.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, It's rare that legal stories are realistic, so I can overlook it unless it's just laughably stupid, which sadly many of them are.

Tennessee Jed said...

sorry to hear of the passing of Vince Flynn. I loved the Mitch Rapp books. Hollywood already ripped off one of his stories. I think Hollywood hated Flynn and Rapp the way they hated Joel Surnow and Jack Ryan

DUQ said...

Jed, I saw this and I had the same reaction you did. I liked this a lot. I thought the acting was great and the story was surprising too.

Tennessee Jed said...

DUQ - glad you liked it as well! Were you thinking it was going toa "Traffic" style overview of the big drug companies? Jude Law's character does make the perfect dupe, too. It was nice to see him make a good comeback against the bad guys.

I didn't see any great "Hitchcockian" cinematography moments such as Janet Lee's eye from Psycho, but there was one really great touch. The film opens with a long shot of the Gramery neighborhood in NYC, and pans in slowly to the window of the Taylor's apartment before going inside. The film ends inside the inane asylum and slowly pans out to a long shot of Gramercy. Book Ends!!! and a very cool little touch by Soderbergh

LL said...

I thought that the plot was somewhat transparent when I saw the film and the inconsistencies gave it away. But I did see the film and was happy that Soderbergh didn't make it a liberal rant (it had been a concern). As with you, Jed, I enjoyed the film. Good review.

Tennessee Jed said...

thanks, L.L. I can easily understand how you could see through it. I mean, there really are only a few logical conclusions as to what went down, but only after it became clear it was a true "noir" film.That aspect probably would have been more obvious to me if he hadn't got me thinking about how it was going to end up as a rant film to distract me. I put that aspect together with good quality film making, and acting and I could live with the transparent plot holes. Plus, I do fully admit to being a sucker for noir suspense.

T-Rav said...

Hey now, Jed, Hollywood didn't hate Jack Ryan....at least, not after they'd revamped him into a liberal-ish, a-national do-gooder. So, you know.

Yeah, sucks about Vince Flynn. I wasn't a fan of all his books, but I thought a lot of them were very good suspense and well-written. Shame.

Tennessee Jed said...

T-Rav - yeah it does suck, for sure

ScottDS said...

I haven't seen this movie (I can take or leave Soderbergh, though I find him interesting just as a creative person). It does, however, star Rooney Mara - a.k.a. the future ex-Mrs. ScottDS... and no, I won't stop making that joke! I'll get to Redbox eventually. :-)

Re: Vince Flynn... what a shame! So young, too. I've read a few of his books (the more recent ones) and I jokingly describe them to apolitical/left-leaning friends as "right-wing porn" - but they're quite entertaining!

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I haven't read his books, but I know he was a conservative. Young too. RIP

AndrewPrice said...

Scott and Jed, I've enjoyed a lot of Soderbergh's films: Sex, Lies and Videotape, Ocean's 11/13 and Out of Sight.

I wanted to like Solaris.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - Rooney does some nice work in this one. This is neither his best nor his worst film. It held my attention all the way through, and I felt entertained afterwards. That seems to be harder to do for me with most modern films.

ScottDS said...

Jed -

I agree. In my case, it's not difficult to pay attention; it's that the thing I'm paying attention to often isn't worth it.

(On that note, a friend just saw Man of Steel and was quite disappointed. He compared it to "flat soda" of all things and said he preferred Superman Returns instead.)

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I can't stress this enough but avoid Soderbergh's The Good German at all costs. Nolte's best piece of writing at his old site was his review for this movie.

Yikes.

I Netflixed it once and my film buff friend gave up after 10 minutes to watch ESPN in another room!

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - those are the ones I have enjoyed. And although Traffic was too full of itself for its own good, I must admit it was smartly made. What I like about this film is it is made with top flight actors, but doesn't try to take itself to seriously. You could almost have cast Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant with Grace Kelly or Kim Novak. And, I repeat, there some things that stretch the bounds of credibility very far. Even granting that though, I still enjoyed it.

Tennessee Jed said...

Flynn was a consultant to the 24 television show, by the way

Tennessee Jed said...

Rav - I actually meant Jack Bauer rather than Jack Ryan :)!

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - I thought you ARE a left leaning apolitical friend :)

ScottDS said...

I'm closer to the center. I meant my REALLY left-leaning friends.

The apolitical ones couldn't care less. :-)

Kit said...

Still somewhat in shock over Vince Flynn's death. He was probably one of the few writers who's books I actually looked forward too.

BTW, I actually enjoyed Man of Steel quite a lot.

Tennessee Jed said...

Kit - ys, very sad about Flynn, although I had seen this coming for quite some time, I'm afraid. As for the Man of Steel, it is pretty cavalier of me to lump it in with Matt Damon's "anti-fracking" commercial. I haven't seen it, and it could be extremely good. But, it seemed to me that we have seen 4 billion sequels, re-makes, and re-boots of the super-hero comics I read as a kid, and Superman has led the charge. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with big ticket summer blockbusters, of course, but Hollywood is just so damned predictable. In the case of Side Effects, it is not great, but definitely enjoyable.

Libertarian Advocate said...

Saw it when it first came out... Creeped me out considerably. First Rule of psychiatry should be never put a woman on modern anti-depressants.

BevfromNYC said...

Hey, I just read that James Gandolfini died today. Suspected heart attack at 51.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Wow! This is a bad day for dying young.

DUQ said...

Jed, I did. When it first started I thought it was going to be like "Traffic" or "Contagion." But then it changed pretty quickly.

Kit said...

Talk about a crappy day!

T-Rav said...

Tony Soprano? Dang. Combined with Slim Whitman, I guess that's our latest death trio. :-(

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I beg to differ. Soprano and Flynn were both about the same age -- 47/51. But Whitman was a lot older. So rather than being finished, we are still looking at 3 more.

Tennessee Jed said...

Libertarian Advocate - it doe have a certain creepy quality to it. Who do you think used who in this one?

Tennessee Jed said...

when I saw the Gandolfini story breaking on Fox, I thought, wow. Then I was reminded of that whole death dream sequence of Tony Soprano where they played the song by Moby.

Tennessee Jed said...

47 & 51 are both too young, but cancer and heart disease are both tough.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Very true. That's very young these days.

Entertain Yourself said...

I ordered this from NetFlix on a whim. And the mood to watching it, based entirely on the writeup was a genuine "meh". But the rainy evening demanded watching something and this proved to be the highlight of the weekend! I had no idea that I could have passed over this without even caring. Glad I watched! Now to convince other people to watch! :)

tryanmax said...

Finally got around to watching this. Excellent film and definitely in the Hitchcock vein. Good call!

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