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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Review: Side Effects

As I've stated before, January and February are the typical dumping grounds of the cinematic trash heap in terms of new releases. It was curious then that I heard Steven Soderbergh's latest offering would be released during this time of lesser entertainment. While I have the feeling I'll be discussing his career in fuller terms in a later article (hint, hint), I've often found him to be one of the more interesting filmmakers in Hollywood currently. He doesn't always hit the mark, but when he does, it's really quite good. He often falls somewhere between big tent-pole filmmaking and more personalized projects, and I'm not sure there's a specific style that one can really attribute to his work. Needless to say, I was excited to see what was on offering with his latest. In general I can I walked away feeling like I hadn't wasted my time, but in a bit of a hollow way. The following is my early review of Side Effects. While I don't outright spoil many details of the film, I do go on at length about some plot mechanisms, venture further at your own risk.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is stricken with crippling depression to the point where she seemingly often considers suicide. Her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum) is being released from prison for insider trading and while their reunion on the outside is a happy one, Emily continues to lash out. After one particular incident where she attempts to run her car into a parking garage wall, she is taken to the hospital and put under the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist of a questionable past, who not only counsels but also begins to prescribe medication to treat her episodes. When the initial round of pills doesn't work effectively, he counsels with her previous physician Dr. Erica Siebert, who recommends a new experimental medication called Ablixa. Unfortunately, the effects of said medication are less than desirable and when disaster strikes, Emily finds herself behind bars on criminal charges and Banks ends up with his career and personal life completely upended. To say more would hazard ruining the twists of the film, and there are a few of note for better or worse.

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who has collaborated with Soderbergh on the Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant, and Contagion, reunites with him here and the overall tone is quite reminiscent of the work done in Contagion, from shooting style of a somewhat muted palette, to the clinical settings and not dissimilar scoring work. Side Effects is a film that proposes an interesting central thesis, when there are complications with pharmaceutical medications that have legal ramifications, who is to blame specifically? Is it the patient whose actions are the most evident, the prescriber, or the company that produces it? As I sat in my seat, and the fallout of Emily's actions began to take shape, I really began to feel like I understood what this team was hoping achieve. That central question is very difficult to answer in that there are numerous complications that the film lays out very well, and blame for an unfortunate incident is not at all cut and dry. There's also a point within the script that hammers home the idea of America as a pill-popping culture. Not only does Emily take medication, but so does Dr. Banks in order to enhance his focus, his wife before her big job interview, and Emily's boss for undisclosed reasons. It could be a bit on the nose, but when disaster strikes, the underlying questions could have alot of their origin here. That is until about three-fourths of the way through the film, the rug is pulled out from beneath the viewer, and the expectations of where the plot is going are completely upended.

Plot twists in of themselves are never a bad thing, I'm just not sure the way this particular turn is handled necessarily works to the film's advantage. The tone of the movie turns from an psychological thriller that's asking big questions into something that becomes a bit more ordinary, almost a whodunnit? for lack of a better term. There are also just some moments that feel a bit eye-rolly by the film's conclusion, but plot points are tidily dealt with in a smart enough manner that any minor quibbles are negligible. I think my biggest disappointment is that the film seemingly ducked out a more powerful arena and took the unpredictable yet somehow also safer route. Instead of having an unclear antagonist, and characters inhabiting shades of grey, we end up with our fingers pointed at an actual bad guy (s) by the film's finish, and somehow the proceedings just feel a bit cheapened with such a pat, and a bit too convenient, ending. What's on screen isn't poorly done or even unpleasing, it's just perhaps a bit of a lost opportunity in an effort to surprise.

Technically, Soderbergh frames some wonderful shots, including a very nice framing set at the beginning and end of the film that I found rather smart, particularly as the latter portion informed my viewing from earlier in a stronger way. He's not a flashy director at all, but he makes some wonderful choices in camera placement that I found myself appreciating. His lead performers bring good solid A-game for the most part. Mara is definitely the best in show here, convincingly portraying a woman braying on the edge of potential suicidal action. There's quite a bit going on under the surface there as the audience learns during the film's running time and watching Mara we believe every minute of it. Law also is terrific, really nailing the idea of a man torn between his professionalism and caring for his patients, and presenting the question of "how far is too far?". By the second act, his obsessive behavior becomes a central plot entanglement that on a lesser actor may not have worked as well but Law is definitely up to the task. Supporting performances are a slightly mixed bag; Tatum is a non-factor, and Zeta-Jones, in the second film of her return to the screen, is still showing some signs of rust. She was once a wonderful actress but her performance here almost telegraphs too much, and feels slightly out of step with the proceedings. Vinessa Shaw as Banks' wife is fine in a fairly thankless role.

This review probably reads far worse than it should, Side Effects is a nicely made film that will certainly surprise viewers and is leagues beyond anything else you'll see at the multiplex in the February time-frame. Having been teased with such a promising initial thesis, the end outcome comes across as slightly dissatisfying to this viewer, but never outright bad, though it definitely teeters in its final 5-10 minutes in its rush to conclude. I was certainly entertained, satisfaction is another matter, your mileage may vary though depending on what you're looking for.

I give it a B-
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  1. I am really looking forward to this one.

    1. Thanks Wilbert! I hope you enjoy it when it hits theaters. I'm a bit iffy on it, but reviews from others have been quite positive so far.


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