Side Effects

And he guessed at the number of script rewrites as a child guesses at jellybeans in a jar

Rooney MaraBy the third act of Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, you will feel lied to.  And appropriately: the film does what A Beautiful Mind did, but in the wrong way – making the audience think the story is about one thing, and then making it about something else.  Ron Howard’s film, based on a man’s true life experiences with auditory hallucinations, appeared at first (to the layman/non-trailer-watcher) to be about a math whiz inducted into the CIA due to his uncanny ability to make connections between important pieces of information, when in reality, he’s suffering from schizophrenia and inventing the entire thing.  Here, we have a story that at first purports to be about a “very sick girl” suffering from serious depression and being riddled with useless medications, and most refreshingly, seems to be one of the only honest movies about depression itself, but it isn’t that.  It turns out to be – and I don’t use this term lightly – ugh.

The linchpin by which this film remains what the casual viewer would call a “pretty good movie” and not a total wash is, of course, Rooney Mara, who plays the main character – named Emily Taylor – and who gleamed as Lisbeth Salander in 2011 (and was more worthy of the Best Actress Oscar than anyone else nominated that year).  The story begins when Emily picks up her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), from a four year prison sentence and attempts to reconnect.  There are no longer any sparks, however, and Emily is severely depressed, going through episodes that the couple’s friends and Martin himself simply cannot understand.  Finally, she goes to see psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a recently-married doctor who sees an opportunity for extra money by participating in a study of some new depression meds.  He prescribes them to Emily, who is desperate for any relief whatsoever, and they’re seemingly ineffective.  While sleepwalking one night, Emily stabs Martin to death and calmly goes back to bed, her bare feet soaked with blood.

Now we have a real dilemma: who is at fault?  Emily, who physically performed the killing and doesn’t remember a thing, or Banks, who prescribed the pills that turned her into a sleepwalking, knife-wielding zombie?  Banks, feeling sympathy for Emily and wanting to clear his name, as his entire life – including his practice (his partners do not want to be affiliated with someone who so recklessly caused a tragedy) and his wife, Dierdre (Vinessa Shaw) – is threatened.  Wonderful, I said to myself.  Finally, a story in an accessible medium that sympathizes with people who have spent their lives suffering from depression (myself included), identifies with their interior plights, quietly observes their very real struggles, illustrates so vividly the fact that non-depressed people cannot understand what we go through, and even demonizes the opportunistic pharmaceutical industry for haphazardly tossing pills and miracle cures our way; there’s even a commentary on the misleading, cheery ads with supposed formerly-depressed people prancing along beaches with their laughably photogenic families.

Not quite.  Side Effects is that film insofar as Reservoir Dogs is a film about Madonna.  Soderbergh pulls the curtain away and reveals the fact that he really wanted to make a neo-noir movie about a Holmes-like detective trying to investigate his way out of a legal and marital nightmare.  After an extended bout of gumshoeing, Banks deduces that Emily faked the entire thing in an elaborate scheme that also involved her ex-therapist, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), as the two wished only to make exorbitant sums of money through stock market manipulation (there’s a fortune to be made if a popular drug kills a patient).  Through one thing and another, Banks puts into motion his own dastardly scheme for revenge and freedom, winning his life back in a painfully obvious post-test-audiences ending that left me with my palm glued to my forehead.

So if you watch the second half, you get the opposite of what I thought the film would be (and of some importance, what the film was marketed as).  I do not like the implication that depressed people are “faking” their symptoms or exploiting the sympathy of others.  Thinking about it makes my third eye hurt.  In fact, any attempt at critical analysis causes this film’s internal logic (or lack thereof) to collapse: How was it so easy for Emily to murder her actual husband of five years?  Why would Emily act drugged when being injected with saline solution if she knew it would tip her hand?  Why would Dierdre think John would take photos of a patient in her underwear and then send them to their shared home?  Why wouldn’t she recognize the handwriting on the envelope as someone else’s?  How would rigging the stock market by murdering someone and hoping for victory in a very specific type of lawsuit seem like a viable get-rich-quick scheme to any thinking person?  Martin (Emily’s husband) knew about her depressions, as if these episodes were something they’d been dealing with together ever since they’d met. If she wasn’t really depressed, we’re supposed to think she’s been maintaining this ruse for five years?  Why is Martin seen as a simple murder victim and tragic figure; why does the film forget that he is a real criminal?  Why do both of the film’s principle female characters turn out to be the evil schemers?  Other than the titillation it provides male viewers with, why did Emily need to initiate a romantic relationship with Siebert in order to make the scheme work (it paints gay people in an unnecessarily negative light)?  Why is Banks, the doctor who admitted to prescribing ineffectual meds to a desperate person (and thus taking advantage of a patient, whether or not she turned out to be scamming him) so easily exonerated by the narrative?  Why is it seen as “okay” for him to get revenge by sending Emily away and prescribing her with additional medication she doesn’t need, essentially turning her into a real zombie and severely abusing his oath as a doctor?  How is Emily legally sent back to the ward after being declared legally “not crazy” barely a day before (any basic scrutiny of the legal system, which I’d expect from filmmakers who spend a third of their movie in a court, would tell you that this can’t happen)?  The film’s non-logic sends one’s head into enough of a cyclone to make even my dumbest question – Why do Emily and Siebert basically bite each other’s lips instead of actually kissing? – seem full of critical merit.

Mara’s performance and the score by Thomas Newman keep the film afloat, and the latter will remind some of Hitchcock’s strategic use of tension-building music (though I am reluctant to compare every single thriller featuring atmospheric music to a Hitchcock movie; this film doesn’t hold any other resemblance).  Jude Law is convincing as usual, and despite its ludicrous pitfalls and dialed-in ending, the film manages to keep interest.  Hopefully, enough good films about mental illness are floating around as to render this film’s potentially-dangerous underlying message innocuous.

You have to admit one thing, though: killer or not, you still want to root for Emily when she’s sitting in front of an abusive male doctor who angrily dismisses her and prescribes harmful medications – both times.

Side Effects (2013); written by Scott Z. Burns; directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum.

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