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

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.