All of us experience boredom. But when I just couldn’t go on any more, I asked my robot about movies. Movies can alleviate the symptoms of boredom, including restless brain syndrome, irritable mouth syndrome, and mistaking a preganglionic fiber for a postganglianic nerve. So do what I did to relieve my boredom: go see a movie. You’ll be glad you did.
WARNING: Results may vary by movie. Side effects may include exasperation, confusion, boredom, Soderberghism, and plot holes. If erection from watching lead female actresses make out with each other lasts more than an hour, please consult real pornography.
And that warning just about encapsulates my feelings about Side Effects, a film I had some high hopes for. I’ve loved several of Steven Soderbergh’s other films, especially Traffic. I had hopes that Side Effects would try to do to the big pharmaceutical companies what Traffic did to the drug war. He teamed up again with scribe Scott Z. Burns, who last worked together on Contagion, a film I also wish I could compare this favorably to.
Side Effects is the story of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) and her psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). She is admitted to the hospital where he practices after a failed suicide attempt. Her husband (Channing Tatum) had recently been released from prison where he had served four years for insider trading. Dr. Banks attempts to treat her depression, and after conferring with Taylor’s previous psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta Jones) puts her on a new antidepressant called Ablixa. While the medication does wonders for her depression, it also causes erratic behavior in her sleep. This eventually causes her to be accused of a murder she most certainly committed, though its unclear she was conscious or not. With his medical treatment called into question, Dr. Banks has to unravel the mystery of the her guilt or innocence.
And so… what is Steven Soderbergh’s deal with Channing Tatum? Is this like some weird performance art piece? Like where he’s intentionally bamboozling us? “Dear America: I heard you enjoy crap movies. Well guess what? I’m going to keep putting Channing Tatum in my movies until you all recognize his brilliance or I trick some of you knuckle-dragging dirt farmers into actually consuming some art.” But you know what? Just like in Magic Mike, Tatum works in this role as the douchey self-involved ex-Wall St. hotshot. So, touché, Soderbergh.
This is a Frankenmovie of epic proportions. The first half tries to be a taut medical drama — and actually succeeds for the most part, although it is pretty heavy-handed. Then just as it gets its most ham-fisted, bludgeoning viewers over the head with all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer, it takes a weird right turn and becomes a very special episode of The BBC Presents: Jude Law: English Detective, MD. And if you thought the first half was ham-fisted, wait until Jude Law starts making a collage of news clippings and medical files on his wall connected by big pieces of red yarn. Then he attempts to solve a mystery that just isn’t all that interesting and for which he really has no motivation to keep digging. Then it just refuses to end. Several times.
And the second half of the movie just basically erases any of the social commentary the first half was trying to make. Because instead of some overwrought theme about how we’re over-medicated as a society and the danger of untested antidepressants, that’s not the case at all. Because all of this was a setup by [ultimate villain here] and he is a man wronged by the system!
But let’s talk about that social commentary. Let me begin by saying that I have several family members who take prescription anti-depressants. I know still others who should be on them or various other psychoactive drugs. So when this movie tries to come at us with a message reminiscent of Mr. Mackey from South Park, “Mmmmmm, drugs are bad, mmmmkay? Prescription drugs? Prescription drugs are bad, mmmmmkay? Anti-depressants? Anti-depressants are bad, mmmmmkay?” it just rings hollow.
Is there a danger that we are over-medicating ourselves? Certainly. Is Big PhRMA incredibly evil along with their great propensity for good and have they successfully removed several important safeguards that would keep dangerous medicines off the market? Yes. But the message is totally lost and even contradicted by the way it’s delivered, and then contradicted by the second half of the film. Too bad. Does Ambien cause people to do weird stuff in their sleep? Yup. Do some anti-depressants actually increase risk of suicide? Seems like it. Did Celebrex and Vioxx kill some people? Well, I don’t want to get sued for slander, but 60 Minutes certainly made that claim.
This film all comes down to wasted potential. It has a lot going for it: A good, punchy script. Good performances. Characters I care about. Good directing. But the story — the basic backbone of narrative– just falls short. And it’s really hard to overcome that.No matter how good those individual pieces are, the fact that this is a frankenmovie trying to stitch together a cohesive film out of disparate parts instead of a creative piece cut from whole cloth that knows what its message is, makes each of those pieces have to try to work overtime to make up for deficiencies elsewhere.
So if you’re looking for insightful commentary into modern life and modern pharmocology business practices, go watch Love and Other Drugs. If you want doctors solving mysteries, you’re better served by watching old episodes of Quincy or Rizzoli and Isles or Crossing Jordan. Hitchcock this is not. In fact, that’s my real recommendation: for every critic that favorably compares this to Hitchcock, go out and watch some real Hitchcock. Rope, The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, North By Northwest….. just something. And realize that this film has no business being compared to those.
I’ll be sad if the rumors are true and this is Soderbergh’s last film. But perhaps taking a break will allow him to take a break and recharge creatively to be able to bring us some of the brilliance we saw in Out of Sight, Traffic, or even Ocean’s 11. Because this is not an appropriate swan song for someone of greater talent, whose Oscar acceptance speech in 2001 still inspires me to be creative. At least all of the actors involved in this film will go on to do better things.
I give Side Effects 2 stars: one star for each of the pieces that are so shoddily cobbled together. Do not see Side Effects if you have any of the following pre-existing conditions: Contagion envy, dragon tattoos, a brain, and an unwillingness to accept plot holes and ridiculous character motivations. Patients taking Magic Mike should consult their doctors before taking it in combination with Side Effects, as you may have an undiagnosed but rare condition called Tatum-fetish.
Side Effects has been known to cause headaches, vomiting, zombieism, and may not alleviate the symptoms of boredom it was prescribed for.