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.

Silver Linings Playbook

Excelsior!

Silver Linings Playbook is the greatest rom-com of its generation.  Why?  Because it’s never played for laughs, and its cozy ending is never guaranteed or taken for granted.  Jennifer Lawrence has already scooped up several awards for her performance, including her second nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars.  Do the majority of the film’s proponents feel that David O. Russell (and to a separate extent, writer Matthew Quick) does an honest job of portraying the mentally ill in a sympathetic light, or do the film’s characters simply fall into line with popular perceptions of folks struggling with these illnesses (i.e. the way we want to think about the “less fortunate”)?  I hope it’s not the latter, but I’d like to explore it a little.

The movie begins with Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a married man with bipolar disorder, returning home after eight months of treatment at a mental health care facility.  His wife, who previously cheated on him, has gone away due to Pat’s violent behavior, and Pat moves back in with his parents, Patrizio, aka Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver).  He has always shared a strained relationship with his father, who apparently favored Pat’s brother, Jake (Shea Whigham), and who, as a result of being out of work, has taken up bookmaking (in particular, gambling on Philadelphia Eagles games) to make ends meet.  Pat Sr. associates all sorts of superstitions with the Eagles, displaying mild symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder when games are on – he must hold onto a certain handkerchief for the duration of each game, the remote controls must point in a certain direction while resting on the TV stand, certain family members must sit on certain sections of the couch, and so on.  These are mostly played as the Movie version of OCD (i.e. quirky and ultimately harmless), but thankfully, Pat Sr.’s problems don’t exist as a joke in and of themselves: he desperately wants to reconnect with his son; however, he must do it on his own terms, and we can sympathize with him as a well-meaning (albeit poor) father attempting to rectify mistakes and be a good dad, even though his child is now an adult.

The fun begins when Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) at a dinner with his two married friends, Ronnie (John Ortiz) and Veronica (Julia Stiles).  Tiffany’s husband, a police officer, has recently been killed – not doing cop work, but hit by a car while helping a stranger change a tire.  Tiffany admits to not being thrilled with her relationship in the time leading up to her husband’s death, however, and was fired from her job for, as she puts it, “having sex with everyone in the office.”  Pat asks, “Were there any women?”  “Yes,” she says.  “What was that like?”  “Hot.”  Is O. Russell ogling the then-21-year-old Lawrence here?  Yep, absolutely.  Is he making a joke out of sex addiction?  Maybe; I hope not.  But this scene turns out to be something wonderful, and not throwaway sexualization.  Pat’s reaction (one of titillation and great interest) comes back to haunt him – he accuses Tiffany of being “crazier” than he is, she points out, yet he loved hearing about her sexual escapades.  This brings things right back to the audience.  It’s a scene designed for a certain reaction (particularly from male viewers), but it also invites us to examine why we have the reactions we have, and serves to remind us that no one is immune to hypocrisy.

Tiffany eventually recruits Pat to be her dance partner in exchange for delivering letters from Pat to his estranged wife, who has obtained a restraining order against him.  As an audience, of course, we think, “No!  You two are supposed to end up together!” but they cannot yet see it (also, given their personalities, we’re not too sure a relationship is a good idea).  Pat accepts this dance partnership at the same time as Pat Sr. and Jake attempt to rekindle their familial bonds with him, and this leads to layers and layers of personal conflict that bring every character together on many different levels.  Yes, the characters work as slaves to romantic comedy convention – Meet Cute, Lull Section, Spiteful Sleaze, etc. – but the characters are deepened and developed to the point that the story’s conventional backdrop feels like a cushion.  We know Pat must eventually chase down Tiffany in the end, but the film is only a comedy insofar as Shakespeare’s comedies were: not meant as one big joke throughout, but comforting enough in its conclusion that there’s little to no unease during the walk up the aisle.

Silver Linings Playbook respects its characters and places them, not the concept, beneath the spotlight, however many bits of formula may be visible beneath the gloss.  The various mental/medical struggles of the characters, while oversimplified and polished for the screen, are never played off as lovable quirks, and that’s rare.  Here we see Bradley Cooper’s best performance yet (proving he can do something other than the slick Fonzie type character), and another juggernaut from Jennifer Lawrence, in her third and most special performance of the year.  The scroll of awards she’s collected since 2010 is enough to humble anyone in her age bracket and trade.  Robert De Niro, as the struggling old father, has the Christopher Plummer effect in this movie (maybe because his relationship with Cooper’s Pat is close to home) – when he gets teary, so do I.  Jacki Weaver’s and Shea Whigham’s characters are used well, and there’s even an appearance from Chris Tucker, who pops up now and again as Danny, Pat’s hospital-mate and the film’s resident comic relief.

Roger Ebert said of this movie, “[it’s] so good, it could almost be a terrific old classic.”  When the AFI does its “200 Years” list, I have every confidence that it will be considered one.  Let’s just remember to thank John Milton for the title.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012); written and directed by David O. Russell; adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, and Jacki Weaver.