Skip to main content

You're not feeling like you're in a poison fog?


Side Effects
(2013)

(SPOILERS) At first it appears that Steven Soderbergh’s final cinematic release (for the time being) may be taking the Traffic approach to the pharmaceutical industry. It wouldn’t be a surprise, as the director likes his issue-led films (which also include Erin Brokovich and Contagion). But Side Effects veers from such a path so preposterously that it leaves him with nothing to say on the subject. It ends up as an above average thriller, but completely forsakes discussing prescription dependency for easy twists and cheap thrills.


It’s near to the reverse of how he treated Contagion. There he had a wonderful opportunity to make a truly frightening pandemic horror but instead took such a restrained, clinical approach that it rarely hit home. The director’s always been a bit frosty, emotionally disengaged from his projects and characters, and sometimes this disposition is more appropriate than at others. Here, he shows his usual technical virtuosity in letting us in on the foggy haze of the medicated, suicidal Emily (Rooney Mara), and his detachment means we’re somewhat blindsided when Scott Z Burns’ script starts piling on the unlikeliest and most sensational of revelations.


Emily’s husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison and soon after she attempts suicide. Her newly appointed shrink Jonathan (Jude Law) prescribes a range of medication, with limited benefits, before her old psychiatrist Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones) suggests a new drug, Ablixa. At first this seems great; it perks up her sex drive, with just a slightly unwanted side effect of somnambulism against it. It’s in such a state that she kills Martin one night.


Killing off Tatum 30 minutes into the film makes for a highly effective Psycho moment; certainly, I didn’t see it coming. But I presumed this would go to emphasise the meat of the tale; prescription meds are bad, kids. Emily pleads insanity, and attention shifts to prescription-happy Jonathan and the gradual disintegration of his professional and personal life. He starts to look around for others to blame, and wouldn’t this be just the kind of self-denial we’d expect? Particularly as he has more than one theory; either Emily was faking her episodes or he’s a victim of a cover-up by the pharma company. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t turn out to be the latter. As with Contagion, Soderbergh retreats from anything slightly radical once he has raised an issue (there it was Law’s anti-science holistic conspiracist), to the extent that one suspects the director of a lurking conservatism (small “c”). So not only do the thriller elements engulf any serious discussion of the medicated society, but also he arrives at a polar opposite position; the antagonist, who is not mentally ill, is forced onto drugs at the behest of her triumphant psychiatrist (the beleaguered hero). We’re led to the point where we cheer on Jonathan screwing with a healthy (as much as a murderer can be, anyway) person’s brain chemistry.


Soderbergh is less than scrupulous in his choices throughout, which at least keeps you on your toes. The subjective way he treats Emily’s state of mind during the opening sections is a big fat visual cheat (she’s faking it so she’s not in the “poisonous fog” she describes to Jonathan), but he can’t really be accused of a Stage Fright-esque hoodwinking. It’s just a bit sneaky. By the time we discover that Emily is having a lesbian affair with Victoria, and they hatched their grand plot together (which involved making Jonathan a dupe), he’s keeping things moving so adeptly that we barely have time to stop and think about how far-fetched the whole thing is (be it faking a sodium amatol interrogation, manipulating stock prices for drugs or relying on the duping of a random brain care specialist for the scheme to succeed). 


Which means that, while Side Effects is highly entertaining, the tangent it veers off on is a disappointment given where it started. The sheer blaséness of attitudes to medication during the opening sections promises so much more. Jonathan is dosing his clients at the drop of a hat (he even tells his wife, “It doesn’t make you anything your not, it just makes it easier to be who you are” as he plies her with pills). There’s a great scene of Jonathan and his partners being wined and dined by a pharma rep looking for sponsors for a new product. And Jonathan is not a bad guy; he shows due concern for his patients when he is with them. The problem is that he is there only superficially, and he doesn’t attend to the fine print. As such he has no qualms over the business of dishing out magic cure-alls, favouring wall-to-wall engagements over quality client service. The falling apart of his world initially seems like a judgement on his lack of oversight, but turns round to a point where he is without guilt and emerges victorious. It doesn’t feel quite right.


I’ve said this a couple of times of his recent work, but Law’s gone from an actor I really didn’t care for to one who is consistently turning in strong performances in interesting movies. At first it looks like he’s a bit player here, with Mara as the lead, so it’s another of the film’s clever shifts when he becomes the focus. Mara is commanding in an unsympathetic role and she and Tatum make for a very natural couple (too good to be true); it’s not really her fault that Emily’s motivation for killing Tatum is lacking (her loss of lifestyle really cheesed her off!) Zeta-Jones bears the signs of visiting Nicole Kidman’s plastic surgeon, which lends her an air of supernatural menace. Like Mara, her characterisation suffers in the last third of the film but she does get to wallop Law with a handbag.


One could imagine Brian De Palma being right at home with this kind of material, and he’d certainly have played up its more trashy aspects. Soderbergh lends Side Effects an air of respectability it might not quite deserve, or at least warrant. For all that it shirks saying anything of value this is manages to satisfy as wriggling, writhing thriller that keeps you hooked. It’s just not great brain fodder.

***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

This popularity of yours. Is there a trick to it?

The Two Popes (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes joke, in which he dropped The Two Popes onto a list of the year’s films about paedophiles, rather preceded the picture’s Oscar prospects (three nominations), but also rather encapsulated the conversation currently synonymous with the forever tainted Roman Catholic church; it’s the first thing anyone thinks of. And let’s face it, Jonathan Pryce’s unamused response to the gag could have been similarly reserved for the fate of his respected but neglected film. More people will have heard Ricky’s joke than will surely ever see the movie. Which, aside from a couple of solid lead performances, probably isn’t such an omission.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.