Movie Review: Side Effects
February 6, 2013
As I stated to Steven Soderbergh, writer Scott Z. Burns and the cast of SIDE EFFECTS at the film’s recent press day, if SIDE EFFECTS is indeed the last movie any of them ever make, they are all going out on top because...damn..they nailed it! SIDE EFFECTS is brilliant! A script by Scott Z. Burns so intricate, so twisted (in more ways than one), so intriguing, so fascinating - it is elevated to even greater heights by superb camera work and editing. Rooted in duplicitous intrigue and tension to rival that of Hitchcock, SIDE EFFECTS calls into play pharmaco-legal-criminal twists and turns with a permeating underlying theme of ethics and morals leading to an eruption of excitement, mystery...and accuracy! SIDE EFFECTS is the epitome of intrigue, mystery and mastery!
At the request of not only Soderbergh and producer Lorenzo DiBonaventura, but fervent pleas for plot secrecy by Catherine Zeta-Jones, I will only provide you with story basics so as to allow you the full experience and jaw-dropping shock value of seeing the twists unfold before your very eyes. A huge fan of films that open with a shot that is more of a conclusion or second act teaser, SIDE EFFECTS had me at a bloody footprint. Chomping at the bit, the mind races as the camera slowly moves through a house or apartment. Whose blood? Where did it come from? How did it happen? Did someone die? Where are we? All the essential "W" questions are posited and engage you audience from the opening frame. As comes as no surprise, Soderbergh's visuals just intensify the questions with irreverent skewed angles, blending extended travelling one shots with soft edits to objects and rooms. And then our diegetic story begins.
Emily is a rather mousey and timidly appearing ad agency employee. Working this 9 to 5 job to support herself while husband Martin is cooling his heels in jail, Emily doesn’t look too happy. In fact, she looks downtrodden, and lost, as if she has been defeated by life. And not surprising given that Martin has spent the last four years in prison for insider trading. Before he got caught, Emily and Martin were the epitome of the kind of happy that greed could buy. A mansion in Greenwich or Hamptons, fancy cars, a boat, designer clothes and jewels, extravagant parties. But with the roar of sirens and the clicking of handcuffs, all that came to a crashing end.
But now the day has come that should give Emily cause to celebrate. Martin is free. While he is exuberant, assuring her that he will get them “back to where they were”, Emily’s smile feels forced and painted on. But it’s when she intentionally slams her car into the wall of a parking garage that we know there is something deep-seeded and wrong.
Finding herself in the emergency room, she meets Dr. Jonathan Banks. The psychiatrist on-call, Dr. Banks suspects Emily a possible suicide. Rather than be put on a 5150 psychiatric hold for observation, Emily pleads and promises to enter into therapy and take anti-depressant drugs. But these drugs have SIDE EFFECTS. So Banks prescribes more drugs which have their own set of SIDE EFFECTS, including sleepwalking. Distraught over Emily’s lingering problems, Dr. Banks even consults Dr. Victoria Siebert, Emily’s former psychiatrist who treated her for depression immediately after Martin’s incarceration.
And then Emily’s world implodes, taking everyone and everything in her path down with her. But to what end? And why?
Jude Law is riveting. As Dr. Banks, the intensity and integrity that he gives his character is the epitome of what the law is - to let the truth come out no matter what the consequences. Same thing in psychiatry. Get to the truth and then deal with it. Law is beyond compelling and captivating. I was with him every step of the journey and the plot twists and devices used to "get to the truth" with clues discovered made for a fun ride. Playing into Law’s performance is the editing which is key to building that anticipation and tension.
Rooney Mara is interesting choice as Emily. After The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, we are caught off guard with the mousey timidness of Emily, but at the same time, engrossed by her moodiness. A delicate emotional balancing act that lures you like the aromatic scent of a wafting perfume.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is delicious. With a sultry kittenish drawl and slow deliberate body movements, you know there is more behind those black rimmed glasses and hair bun than a "caring" shrink. She lures you deeper with every look, every nuance, every word.
Channing Tatum’s Martin is an exuberant plot device. Appealing and likeable to a fault, Tatum makes you almost forget the despicability of his white collar crime while proving a catalyst for all the twists and turns that develop. Sadly, distracting from the film and Tatum is his “rich man” wardrobe - blue pinstripe seersucker suit and Pat Boone “old man” white bucks. Did nothing to advance the idea of Martin being a shrewd Wall Street insider.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh as what he purports to be his “final” theatrical film (of course, as he told me after the press conference, that can always change in the future), SIDE EFFECTS is a seamless collaboration between not only Soderbergh and scribe Scott Z. Burns, but the technical consultant, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Sasha Bardey. So much more than a “pharmacology” film, SIDE EFFECTS incorporates the broader spectrum theory “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”, with a meld of medical ethics, legal ethics, malpractice issues, criminal issues and the age old “money is the root of all evil.” According to Burns, everything started with Dr. Bardey. “A long time ago I met Dr. Bardey. . . I had the privilege of following him around and seeing the intersection of the law and mental illness and psychopharmacology. It was an amazing confluence of things to be in the nexus of. And I just started imagining stories because of the things that he talked about. There are people that want to get better. There are companies that want to sell products. There are advertising agencies that want to help them o sell those products. There are doctors who want to help their patients. You certainly run a more profitable practice if you see four patients an hour and just give them prescriptions than if you sat with them and did psychotherapy. And some people don’t want to do psychotherapy. They see an ad on tv and they want to get better. They don’t want to get involved in a therapeutic program that might take years. So it was all of those things that I think create the world in which the story could exist. And what Steve [Soderbergh] and I really wanted to do was make a thrill ride. I think the best thrill rides are thrill rides through landscape [around you].” Spurring ethics debates on a multiplicity of levels, everything is fair game and everything is at play making for one of the greatest psychological thrill rides of the year.
According to producer Lorenzo DiBonaventura,“The whole point of [SIDE EFFECTS] was to put a man in an impossible situation and let the audience go on the ride with him. I think one of the tricks that Scott [Burns] did so well that touches on these things is that it doesn’t stay on them. It keeps going.”
THIS is the Soderbergh I know and love. Manipulative, deliberate, decisive, providing subtle and subconscious social commentary all crafted with Hitchcockian mystery. Burns's script dazzles. The intricacies with which he crafts the story is Oscar-worthy. There is a perfect blend of the pharmaco-med-legal aspects of the story. Celebratory, and as DiBonaventura agrees, is that Burns never pigeonholes himself or makes anything predictable. He keeps the audience on its toes and the edge of its seat as this story can play out so many different ways. And be on the lookout for telltale hints of the unfolding mystery. Those with a legal background will detect some. Those with a medical background will detect others. Anyone familiar with bars will pick up on still others. Masterful story construction.
Known for his exemplary cinematography and camera work, Soderbergh doesn’t disappoint and in fact, takes it up a notch. Stunning is a sequence involving Emily and a mirror. Tonally throughout the film, the visuals are enticing and intriguing. Soft gold lighting escalates the mirage.....and is perfect contrast for the saturated realism and greys of "the world." Sickly yellow pallor in the jail and mental hospital exacerbate our preconceived notions of Emily's mental state and illness. Skewed and asymmetrical camera angles effectively compose the body of the film. Interestingly, Jude Law's Dr. Banks is really the only aspect of the film that is lighted in reality and lensed without focal play. Through camera angles and saturated exaggerated red lipstick and black framed glasses, the hard/starkness or Catherine Zeta-Jones' Dr. Siebert raises questions. And then the soft, bright, hand-held freedom of flashbacks pre-Martin's arrest. Easy breezy and carefree. Every cinematic element comes into play to tell this story and ratchet up the tension.
And talk about shock factors! A car crash. A stabbing. A subway. Talk about pushing the envelope and grabbing the audience by the throat with fear! WOW!!!!
Important to note is the authenticity of the pharmaceutical materials and information presented in the film. According to Dr. Bardey, when it comes to the drugs mentioned, “I know that everything we did pick is spot on. It’s very realistic. . .When medications are mentioned and side effects are mentioned, those are legitimate side effects to those medications. When they are described as being used, they are described as being properly used. We were very careful to keep this very realistic and very true to science.” Going a step further, Bardey is also quick to note that “ The [medical/psychiatric] issues that are raised are issues that should be raised, but we don’t take a side. The movie is very careful about raising issues for discussion without in any way presenting an opinion or lean in any direction.”
And while SIDE EFFECTS has plenty of its own side effects driving this exhilarating thrill ride, perhaps the greatest side effect is the one that will have you seeing the film again and again. SIDE EFFECTS is a thrilling mastery of mystery!!
Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Cast: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vinessa Shaw and Channing Tatum