Monday, February 11, 2013

Side Effects (***)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh


Steven Soderbergh's latest film already has the interesting asterisk of possibly being the final theatrical release of this celebrated filmmaker's career (to be sure, Soderbergh's final film is setting up to be the much-anticipated HBO TV movie Behind The Candelabra - a biopic about Liberace). That Side Effects may have to hold the mantle of being his last movie in the theaters probably puts a little more pressure on this small but compelling film then needs to be. But I don't think Soderbergh sees his career that way. He seems much happier to go out with very solid work than concluding it with a big bang. It's all circumstance, really, and I just feel that this is the story he felt he needed to tell right before the end - and to be honest, I find it fitting. 

Side Effects reconnects Soderbergh with the screenwriter of 2011's Contagion, a film of similar temperament, tone and tempo. Both movies take very "movie type" plots (in Contagion, a virus which is quickly eroding the human race; in Side Effects, prescription drugs that may lead to extraordinarily dangerous side effects) and approach them with a calm, almost hyper-real perception that presents these ideas if they were to logically happen in the real world. That's a very pretentious way to tell cinematic tales (suggesting a superior way to tell the tales that people usually like to see with more bells and whistles). But both films have a warmth hidden deep underneath the starkness, usually emanating from the superb characters, that make these films delightful watches despite the dark subject matter. I.e. Contagion is not interested in being a muckraking argument against cleaner food, and Side Effects has no plans to protest against liberal psychiatrists with a prescription pad - those just happen to be the settings.

The film deals with Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a woman with severe depression and perhaps other instances of troubling mental illnesses. Her condition has gotten worse ever since the incarceration of her Wall Street husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), for insider trading. After four years, Martin is finally out and free and ready to re-assimilate into the financial world and get back everything that he'd lost when he went to prison. But Emily's condition puts a damper on any happiness that Martin's return may bring, and everything comes to a head when she intentionally slams her car into the wall of the parking garage in her building. That puts her in the hospital and brings her to the attention of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who can tell almost immediately that this act was an attempt by Emily to harm herself.

Emily and Dr. Banks come to a compromise: she won't have to stay in the hospital as long as she promises to have sessions with Banks and seek help. What follows is a revolving door of several medications which Dr. Banks prescribes to help her deal with her emotional turmoil, each with several side effects that either turn Emily into a blank slate, indifferent to Martin or leave her lightheaded and nauseous. When Emily is tipped off about a new drug (a drug which Dr. Banks just so happens to be being paid very well to test with his patients), she begins to take it and it makes her feel much better. The one drawback is that the drug leads to pretty elaborate sleepwalking episodes. Martin, fed up with all of the consequences of these drugs, pleads with Emily and even to Dr. Banks to get her off the new drug. But when Emily pleads that a few instances of sleepwalking is fine as long as she feels better, everyone agrees that Emily can stay on the drug despite the alarming warning signs.

Not long after this, during one particularly bad sleepwalking episode, Emily unconsciously plunges a kitchen knife into Martin when he arrives home. She awakens, totally unaware of what has lead to the death of her husband, and suddenly the treatment she has been receiving from Dr. Banks comes under extreme scrutiny. Both Emily and Dr. Banks begin fighting to protect their names, while Emily tries to stay out of prison for murder and Dr. Banks tries to keep his growing career and family intact. But the two don't always have each other's interest at heart as both scramble to survive. And when Dr. Banks gets into contact with Emily's prior psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he begins to uncover details about both Emily and her condition that may change everything.

The film's screenplay, written by Scott Z. Burns, works like a complicated puzzle, building like a common American thriller, though its plot points are a lot simpler than they're perceived. The film forces the audience to feel sympathy for people they may have moments before found despicable, and vice versa. Allegiances may switch from various people as more and more facts unfold. I'd credit Burns with allowing these facts to reveal themselves at just the right time, but also Soderbergh with his always excellent handle of flow and multiple characters. Like Contagion, no one character holds the sole protagonist status, but the number of characters is much smaller here. It isn't until the very end that you even know who's truly good and bad - and even by that time, it seems like more a grey area. And I think Soderbergh guides it expertly toward that place, while still making it seem very satisfying.

With Side Effects, Mara continues what has been a dazzlingly successful few years which began with a small, but pivotal role in The Social Network and a brilliant, Oscar-nominated turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (later this year, she's primed to be in Spike Jonze's latest film, Her). This film showcases more of her virtuoso abilities, perfectly displaying Emily as a woman that you're never able to quite pinpoint, even by the film's conclusion. But the main star here is Jude Law. With his incredibly excellent work in Anna Karenina still fresh in my mind, its getting time for us to start realizing how talented this actor is again. Dr. Banks is not evil man by any standards, and by all evidence seems to be a very good and caring doctor. But backed into a corner and forced to fight for his survival, we see just how cunning and manipulative he can be.

It seems like the cruelest joke that Soderbergh's final movie will be on television, but it goes hand-in-hand with his schizophrenic relationship with the film industry and (occasionally) his fans. There's been a sort of an assembly line feeling to his work over the last few years (pretty much everything since The Informant!), as if he always has one eye on this retirement that he announced many years ago, and this film isn't much different from that. The skill for storytelling and slick filmmaking is there, but the passion doesn't exactly jump off the screen. Side Effects is not a perfect movie; there are moments in its resolution that seem to be outside of any form of logic and seems to betray the film's realistic tone. But if this is in fact the last movie that we see from him on the silver screen (and for the record, I don't think it is), it is definitely a denouement to be proud of, even if it doesn't come with the fanfare most people would be expecting.

In a related note, the original title for 'Side Effects' was slated to be 'The Bitter Pill', which is the obviously superior choice between the two. Whether the title was changed because it may give away aspects of the plot or for marketing reasons, I am fully against it. This is one of many instances in which Hollywood has struck an axe into the creativity of film titles. 'The Bitter Pill' is the title that this very intelligent film deserves, me thinks.

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