“Side Effects” Review
April 15, 2013 4 Comments
Side Effects (2013)
Said to be the final film of Steven Soderbergh, ‘Side Effects’ seems to have a lot going for it: great director, impressive cast, and a twisty story, promising a gripping thriller. However, as the viewing of ‘Side Effects’ shows, sometimes even these attributes are not enough. In ‘Side Effects’, a young woman, Emily (Rooney Mara), finally welcomes her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum) home after the latter had spend some time in prison. Finding herself unable to cope with her routine shift, Emily, who also has a history of depression, becomes very melancholic, and is soon prescribed a new drug, Ablixa to help maintain her mood. Her new psychiatrist, Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) takes charge from her old psychiatrist, Dr Victoria Siebert, (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and promises to monitor Emily’s progress closely. Then, when Emily’s husband is brutally murdered at home, the new drug becomes a prime suspect.
First, the good things: ‘Side Effects’ is stylish and entertaining. Steven Soderbergh, who has previously directed ‘Erin Brockovich’ (2000), ‘Traffic’ (2000) and Contagion’ (2011) clearly knows the thriller genre. The issue of the danger of prescription medication, and its proliferation, is also presented well in the movie, almost echoing ‘Psychiatry: The Marketing of Madness: Are We All Insane’ documentary. Neither the cast nor acting are flawed or to blame. Rooney Mara gives a good performance as Emily, a shy, mysterious young woman trapped in her imagination and sorrow. Jude Law is also surprisingly good in the role of her psychiatrist.
From the very first scenes, ‘Side Effects’ almost reminds of Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby‘ (1968) with its eerie music and the shots of apartment buildings, slowly letting us know that what we are about to encounter soon is a type of ‘modern’ horror. Here, however, we come to the first and main problem – the actual plot unoriginality. However fascinating maybe the subject matter: drugs, psychiatry, gruesome murder mystery, ‘Side Effects’ contributes very little by way of originality to the already mile-long chain of similarly-themed films. Beginning with ‘Spider’ (2002) and ending with ‘Shutter Island’ (2010), previous films have touched upon the theme of ‘Side Effects’ numerous times, but, have, arguably, done a far better job at that. The final plot twist is clear and can be guessed: nothing will end up as it seems at first and the most innocent-appearing person in the movie aka ‘ the victim’ will turn out to be the main villain. In that vein, nothing particularly stands out in ‘Side Effects’. As Roger Ebert astutely put in his ‘Fight Club‘ (1999) review: “A lot of recent films seem unsatisfied unless they can add final scenes that redefine the reality of everything that has gone before; call it the Keyser Soze syndrome” (from The Usual Suspects (1995)).
Moreover, as we think about it more, ‘Side Effects’ becomes something of a badly re-cycled and already forgotten ‘Malice’ (1993). In that movie, the victim of a botched medical operation, Nicole Kidman, had actually turned out to be the guilty party’s main accomplice, and the two villainous lovers (the doctor and the victim) had actually set up an intelligently-construed trap for everyone in the movie in order to get their hands on the millions. While in ‘Side Effects’ the two lovers are there to kill ‘the husband’, in ‘Malice’ the two lovers are there to hoodwink and blackmail him, ‘the husband’.
The movie is also confused, maybe even as confused as Emily, the main heroine. Emily’s severe depression seems very odd: here we have a young women who has recently welcomed her husband from prison, and maybe they do not live with such a lavish lifestyle anymore, but shouldn’t she be happier? No, she is actually sadder. This confusion and uncertainty about the cause of Emily’s depression actually weakens the plot, and makes the movie more predictable towards the end. From all of this follow the so-called ‘twists’, which appear unremarkable in retrospect. In fact, far from being defined as ‘twists’, they can be described as a series of predictable ‘confusions’ thrown sporadically here and there in the movie just to confuse you more and unnecessarily. And when, finally, the main ‘twist’ is revealed, far from being thrilled or in awe, one can at best experience slight surprise, but largely indifference (and also probably thinking about the silliness of the whole thing). Moreover, beyond this point, there is virtually nothing worth commenting about in this movie: all the characters are dislikeable, and nothing in this film makes effort to involve the viewer emotionally.
One other major weakness of this film is the way it portrays the legal side of affairs. It does so very unconvincingly. Frankly, ‘Side Effects’ is ludicrous from a legal point of view. Blame imposition when the crime is committed is turned on its head in the movie. In that respect, it becomes worse than ‘Fracture’ (2007) (co-starring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling), where the whole premise is that X, knowing for certain that Y committed the crime, cannot find any ‘legal’ evidence to prove it and his case fails, even though it could not have done anyone but Y (factual evidence in itself).
Coupled with this is again the absence of any effort to make the audience care for anybody in the movie, or move the audience emotionally. As one cannot sympathise with anybody in the film, ‘Side Effects’ becomes something like watching three strangers rip each other off for money, and then shift the blame around.
‘Side Effects’ is an admirable effort. It is a good movie with an interesting script, boasting smooth, controlled direction. It will elicit a decent amount of curiosity and a heap of confusion. However, being neither intelligently intriguing, original nor emotionally appealing, from the very first scenes it actually slides into a very mediocre movie with, although an imaginative, but, lukewarm twist. 6/10