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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

If a rat were to walk in here right now as I'm talking, would you treat it to a saucer of your delicious milk?

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
(SPOILERS) His staunchest fans would doubtless claim Tarantino has never taken a wrong step, but for me, his post-Pulp Fiction output had been either not quite as satisfying (Jackie Brown), empty spectacle (the Kill Bills) or wretched (Death Proof). It wasn’t until Inglourious Basterds that he recovered his mojo, revelling in an alternate World War II where Adolf didn’t just lose but also got machine gunned to death in a movie theatre showing a warmly received Goebbels-produced propaganda film. It may not be his masterpiece – as Aldo Raines refers to the swastika engraved on “Jew hunter” Hans Landa’s forehead, and as Tarantino actually saw the potential of his script – but it’s brimming with ideas and energy.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
(SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump. And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

Hey, everybody. The bellboy's here.

Four Rooms (1995)
(SPOILERS) I had an idea that I’d only seen part of Four Rooms previously, and having now definitively watched the entire thing, I can see where that notion sprang from. It’s a picture that actively encourages you to think it never existed. Much of it isn’t even actively terrible – although, at the same time, it couldn’t be labelled remotely good– but it’s so utterly lethargic, so lacking in the energy, enthusiasm and inventiveness that characterises these filmmakers at their best – and yes, I’m including Rodriguez, although it’s a very limited corner for him – that it’s very easy to banish the entire misbegotten enterprise from your mind.

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 am forever driven on this quest.

Ad Astra (2019)
(SPOILERS) Would Apocalypse Now have finished up as a classic if Captain Willard had been ordered on a mission to exterminate his mad dad with extreme prejudice, rather than a mysterious and off-reservation colonel? Ad Astra features many stunning elements. It’s an undeniably classy piece of filmmaking from James Gray, who establishes his tone from the get-go and keeps it consistent, even through various showy set pieces. But the decision to give its lead character an existential crisis entirely revolving around his absent father is its reductive, fatal flaw, ultimately deflating much of the air from Gray’s space balloon.

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

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.

The adversary oft comes in the shape of a he-goat.

The Witch (2015)
(SPOILERS) I’m not the biggest of horror buffs, so Stephen King commenting that The Witchscared the hell out of me” might have given me pause for what was in store. Fortunately, he’s the same author extraordinaire who referred to Crimson Peak as “just fucking terrifying” (it isn’t). That, and that general reactions to Robert Eggers’ film have fluctuated across the scale, from the King-type response on one end of the spectrum to accounts of unrelieved boredom on the other. The latter response may also contextualise the former, depending on just what King is referring to, because what’s scary about The Witch isn’t, for the most part, scary in the classically understood horror sense. It’s scary in the way The Wicker Man is scary, existentially gnawing away at one through judicious martialling of atmosphere, setting and theme.


Indeed, this is far more impressive a work than Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which had hitherto been compared to The Wicker Man, succeeding admirably …