Sunday, February 10, 2013

“Side Effects” – What’s the opposite of thriller?

Imagine that you are a passenger in a car and your friend is driving you to a surprise location. You come to a four-way intersection and you expect your friend to go left, right, or straight. Much to your surprise, your friend shifts the car into flying mode and you go up. After the initial shock that your friend owns a flying car, you spend the rest of the trip wondering why your friend never mentioned he had a flying car, or that there were cities in the sky of which he was a member. That’s how the movie Side Effects unfolds. It’s like watching two halves of two different movies that are vaguely related to each other. It’s a jolting experience that leads to one reaction: huh?

(Spoiler alert: If you like Steven Soderbergh films, you may want to quit reading now. In order to intelligently discuss this movie, there are a few major plot points I have to bring up.)

The film begins by showing us blood trails through a house, then jumps back three months to Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) picking up her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), at prison, who served four years for insider training. Shortly thereafter, Emily smashes her car into a wall in a failed suicide attempt and wakes up in the hospital, greeted by Dr. Banks (Jude Law). After persuading Dr. Banks to take her on as a patient (rather than be committed to a mental ward for a period of time), he tries various anti-depressants to treat her depression. After several of the drugs cause her to vomit, lose sleep, and hate sex, they settle on one called Ablixa after she tries to kill herself again (by stepping in front of a subway train). The Ablixa seems to cure all of those problems, but causes her to sleepwalk, leading her to kill Martin in her final sleepwalking episode and bringing us full circle to the opening scene of the movie.

Emily is arrested for murder and sent to a mental hospital for reasons of insanity, in addition to Dr. Banks arguing that the Ablixa made her do it. Throughout all of this, Dr. Banks periodically consults with Emily’s previous psychiatrist, Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a minor character with no real purpose up to this point, other than offering small suggestions to Dr. Banks to help Emily. So, if you are keeping score, this movie is about a woman’s battle with severe depression and a commentary on the dozens of anti-depressants and the side effects of anti-depressants and what it is doing to our society. It’s approximately at this point in the movie when Soderbergh shifts into flying car mode.

Due to the events concerning Emily, Dr. Banks loses his job and is removed from a trial dealing with another anti-depressant. Emily is also trying to fire him as her psychiatrist so she can go back to Dr. Siebert, even though he kept her from being convicted of murder, and we also find out that Dr. Banks had an incident with a student years in the past. Meanwhile, Dr. Banks is starting to suspect that something’s not right, even though he, nor the audience, has any reason to suspect that anything is amiss. By this point, the audience is being pointed in a direction that his past indiscretion has something do with all of the bad things happening to him. However, a meeting with the drug study representative leads us to believe that the drug companies are committing some kind of fraud. At the same time, Dr. Banks believes that Emily has been faking her condition in order to get away with murdering her husband, even though the first half of the movie was spent trying to convince us how much Emily loved her husband and how depressed she was. Not to mention, we are given no reason for her wanting to kill him, since she could have simply left him while he was in prison. Instead of creating a well-reasoned and thought-out thriller that keeps the audience on the edge of its seat, this convolution leads the audience to continually say “wait, what?” during the entire second half of the film.

Without getting into the final reveal of this tangled mess of a story, I can assure that there is no way the audience could guess the ending or the motivation behind the villains’ plot. That’s not because the audience isn’t capable; it’s because the movie gives zero indication or foreshadowing to that plot. It’s almost as if the entire first half of the film is one giant red herring, while the second half is trying to convince you how clever the whole plot was. It’s like a friend telling you to guess the number’s he thinking between one and ten, and then telling you the answer is pizza.

While the movie’s story leaves a lot to be desired, especially since it could have gone in so many better directions, Zeta-Jones turns in the worst performance in a cast that includes Channing Tatum. While the script is kind enough to remove Tatum fairly early on, Zeta-Jones’ part only increases as the film goes on. She over-dramatizes every line and scene she has, almost as if she thinks she’s in an episode of a soap opera, and hits an awkward crescendo in her final scene.

Reportedly, this is Soderbergh’s last film for a while, potentially forever. That’s kind of shame since the man is only fifty and is capable of great movies like Ocean’s Eleven. Going out on this movie is like a baseball player retiring after popping up in the infield. He just better hope this isn’t what people remember him for.

Rating: Ask for 8 dollars back and where Soderbergh got his flying car.

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