Side Effects is purportedly Steven Soderbergh’s last cinematic release as a director before he takes a sabbatical to concentrate on painting. This break has been much publicized as a ‘retirement’ but the director has backtracked a little on his original statement. His final film for the time being – possibly forever – will be Behind the Candelabra, an expose of life with Liberace starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, which will be shown on HBO in May. As with many of his other films Soderbergh is also the editor and cinematographer for Side Effects (using the assumed names Mary Ann Bernard and Peter Andrews respectively).
It is an unsettling drama, set in New York, that begins with a tracking shot around a blood-stained apartment. Almost immediately we are transported back in time three months and see Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) applying red lipstick before visiting her husband Martin (Channing Tatum), who is nearing the end of a prison sentence for insider dealing on Wall Street. When Martin is finally released Emily struggles to adapt to their new, more modest life together, and suffers with severe bouts of depression, at one point attempting to commit suicide by driving her car into a garage wall and at another point seemingly considering whether or not to jump in front of a passing subway train.
She is assigned to psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), an ambitious, over-worked professional who is comfortable with persuading his patients to take certain pills if he is himself paid by the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the medicine (which appears to be an open and standard practice). When Emily’s condition worsens, Banks contacts her previous psychiatrist, Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who recommends a drug called Ablixa. While the drug helps to lift Emily’s depression, the side effects of taking the drug are heavy, and this takes us as far as the midway-point of the film.
The first half of Side Effects is an assured critique of the practices of Big Pharma and those caught up in their payrolls or affected by their processes and reach. Law’s Dr Banks is confident and personable, but is also greedy and far too free and easy with his prescriptions; at one point he prescribes beta blockers to his wife prior to a job interview as if they were smarties. (Where Emily and Martin have effectively lost their rich pre-prison sentence lifestyle and are trying to work their way back up the ladder, Banks and his wife are also attempting to raise money for a bigger house, suggesting true happiness is fundamentally missing from everyone’s lives in the film, replaced instead by a rapacious desire for more money and more possessions.) Soderbergh shows the casuality of pill-popping across a variety of big city professions and leaves us to make up our own minds about the closeness of the relationships between medical professionals and pharmaceutical salespeople. It’s not exactly surprising that a doctor’s endorsements can be bought if the suitcase is stuffed tightly enough with cash, but Soderbergh handles all of this very deftly, and avoids blatant attempts to enrage any liberal sensitivities in the audience.
On board a boat party for the financial industry, Emily goes to the bar and is shocked to find a distorted reflection of herself in the glass which makes it look as though she has been disfigured. The first half of the film uses mirrored glass and window reflections in a number of scenes, which suggest that fractured personalities exist throughout the film, even if Rooney Mara’s character is the most obvious example. But it’s as relevant to the film as a whole as it is to any of the individual characters. Side Effects may look like a straight take on Big Pharma, but that’s not exactly the whole story, and the film itself is effectively a split personality.
The second half of the film takes an unexpected turn, so you may well want to exercise caution if you decide to read on. Without giving anything crucial to the plot away, Soderbergh largely turns his attention from the pharmaceutical companies and instead creates an altogether different type of drama. This final hour is a fast-paced and taut thriller replete with plot twists, clever double crossings and femme fatales; while some have praised it as Hitchcockian it’s actually got quite a lot in common with John Dahl’s excellent modern noir The Last Seduction. Coincidentally, in The Last Seduction Linda Fiorentino’s character Bridget initially makes off with $700,000, which are profits made by her husband Clay from sales of medical cocaine to drug dealers.
I enjoyed the first, less twisty half of Side Effects more than the second, and as a result I’m a little ambivalent towards the film as a whole. As a critique of medical practice in the US it seemed well-observed and not in the least bit sensational for a good 45 minutes. And the more conventional thriller part of the film worked well for me, too, although I agree with Chris Thomson here when he points out there is perhaps one twist too many and proceedings become a little disjointed near the end. The second half is a little too far-fetched and you can pick one or two holes in the plot if you start to look closely enough. My problem with Side Effects though is that these two parts jar slightly, and while it’s an interesting take on the theme of duality, I’m not sure that it quite works well enough.
Mara is very good as the blank, disconnected depressive at the heart of the story, and her performance here will add to her growing reputation. She is able to evoke both innocent fragility and a more conniving ruthless streak here and her Emily is a well-observed character. She has built on the excellent foundations of strong performances in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network. Law at times is every bit her equal, although after some superb acting initially his performance dips a little, hitting a nadir in a fairly hammy office argument with his two fellow psychiatric practice partners. But he recovers. Overall it is one of his best roles for a while, and he is getting closer to the excellent performances of The Talented Mr Ripley, Cold Mountain and Road to Perdition a decade or so ago.
The least said for Zeta-Jones the better, really. For some unknown reason Soderbergh and his costume and make up departments have created a character that is basically the answer to the question ‘what did Cruella de Vil do after she stopped flogging dalmatian jackets and enrolled in quack school?’ It’s not that the actress herself is particularly bad, it’s just the design of the character is so poor, and so obviously telegraphs an evil, malevolent figure. Dressed head to toe in black and with sharp, angular eyebrows, when the character does actually live up to her image in her dealings as a pusher for pharmaceutical products and at other points later on in the film, it’s completely laughable. Had she appeared like this in a Coen Brothers movie it might well have worked, but not here.
There are a few other more minor quibbles which make me think that this is a good film rather than a great one, but ultimately my disappointment comes from the fact I was enjoying watching an intelligent, calm and well-observed criticism of medical treatment and psychiatric practice in the US, which suddenly switched around the halfway point (after one plot event in particular) and ended up quite different. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to suggest that the second half is bad, and it’s not like Soderbergh or screenwriter Scott Z Burns suddenly dispense with all the themes they establish in the first half, but I found it frustrating that the ‘targets’ of the script shift from big pharmaceutical corporations to individual characters.
Despite being a very different type of film the subject matter means that Side Effects sits well alongside two of Soderbergh’s other movies that address corporate practices, Erin Brockovich and The Informant! As a director he achieved great success very early on in his career, winning the Palme d’Or for his first feature (Sex, Lies and Videotape). The ensuing decades have seen him work across a variety of genres, and for the most part he has seemingly been at home whether making caper movies like Ocean’s Eleven, sci-fi (such as the remake of Tartovsky’s Solaris) or detailed biopics like Che. Side Effects isn’t quite up there with his best, but it is a fascinating film at times, and de-celebrates the city in which it is set in a similar way to Steve McQueen’s bleak and claustrophobic Shame. Though his directorial career has included many successes, he is perhaps an undervalued filmmaker, and his presence will be missed.
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum
Running Time: 106 Minutes