At first, it appears that Steven Soderbergh’s final cinematic release (for the time being) may be taking the Traffic approach to the pharmaceutical industry. It wouldn’t be a surprise, as the director likes his issue-led films (which also include Erin Brokovich and Contagion). But Side Effects veers from such a path so preposterously that it leaves him with nothing to say on the subject. It ends up as an above average thriller, but completely forsakes discussing prescription dependency for easy twists and cheap thrills.
It’s near to the reverse of how he treated Contagion. There he had a wonderful opportunity to make a truly frightening pandemic horror but instead took such a restrained, clinical approach that it rarely hit home. The director’s always been a bit frosty, emotionally disengaged from his projects and characters, and sometimes this disposition is more appropriate than at others. Here, he shows his usual technical virtuosity in letting us in on the foggy haze of the medicated, suicidal Emily (Rooney Mara), and his detachment means we’re somewhat blindsided when Scott Z Burns’ script starts piling on the unlikeliest and most sensational of revelations.
Emily’s husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison and soon after she attempts suicide. Her newly appointed shrink Jonathan (Jude Law) prescribes a range of medication, with limited benefits, before her old psychiatrist Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones) suggests a new drug, Ablixa. At first this seems great; it perks up her sex drive, with just a slightly unwanted side effect of somnambulism against it. It’s in such a state that she kills Martin one night.
Killing off Tatum thirty minutes into the film makes for a highly effective Psycho moment; certainly, I didn’t see it coming. But I presumed this would go to emphasise the meat of the tale; prescription meds are bad, kids. Emily pleads insanity, and attention shifts to prescription-happy Jonathan and the gradual disintegration of his professional and personal life. He starts to look around for others to blame, and wouldn’t this be just the kind of self-denial we’d expect? Particularly as he has more than one theory; either Emily was faking her episodes or he’s a victim of a cover-up by the pharma company. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t turn out to be the latter. As with Contagion, Soderbergh retreats from anything slightly radical once he has raised an issue (there it was Law’s anti-science holistic conspiracist), to the extent that one suspects the director of a lurking conservatism (small “c”). So not only do the thriller elements engulf any serious discussion of the medicated society, but also he arrives at a polar opposite position; the antagonist, who is not mentally ill, is forced onto drugs at the behest of her triumphant psychiatrist (the beleaguered hero). We’re led to the point where we cheer on Jonathan screwing with a healthy (as much as a murderer can be, anyway) person’s brain chemistry.
Soderbergh is less than scrupulous in his choices throughout, which at least keeps you on your toes. The subjective way he treats Emily’s state of mind during the opening sections is a big fat visual cheat (she’s faking it so she’s not in the “poisonous fog” she describes to Jonathan), but he can’t really be accused of a Stage Fright-esque hoodwinking. It’s just a bit sneaky. By the time we discover that Emily is having a lesbian affair with Victoria, and they hatched their grand plot together (which involved making Jonathan a dupe), he’s keeping things moving so adeptly that we barely have time to stop and think about how far-fetched the whole thing is (be it faking a sodium amatol interrogation, manipulating stock prices for drugs or relying on the duping of a random brain care specialist for the scheme to succeed).
Which means that, while Side Effects is highly entertaining, the tangent it veers off on is a disappointment, given where it started. The sheer blasé-ness of attitudes to medication during the opening sections promises so much more. Jonathan is dosing his clients at the drop of a hat (he even tells his wife, “It doesn’t make you anything you’re not, it just makes it easier to be who you are” as he plies her with pills). There’s a great scene of Jonathan and his partners being wined and dined by a pharma rep looking for sponsors for a new product. And Jonathan is not a bad guy; he shows due concern for his patients when he is with them. The problem is that he is there only superficially, and he doesn’t attend to the fine print. As such he has no qualms over the business of dishing out magic cure-alls, favouring wall-to-wall engagements over quality client service. The falling apart of his world initially seems like a judgement on his lack of oversight, but turns around to a point where he is without guilt and emerges victorious. It doesn’t feel quite right.
I’ve said this a couple of times of his recent work, but Law’s gone from an actor I really didn’t care for to one who is consistently turning in strong performances in interesting movies. At first it looks like he’s a bit player here, with Mara as the lead, so it’s another of the film’s clever shifts when he becomes the focus. Mara is commanding in an unsympathetic role and she and Tatum make for a very natural couple (too good to be true); it’s not really her fault that Emily’s motivation for killing Tatum is lacking (her loss of lifestyle really cheesed her off!) Zeta-Jones bears the signs of visiting Nicole Kidman’s plastic surgeon, which lends her an air of supernatural menace. Like Mara, her characterisation suffers in the last third of the film but she does get to wallop Law with a handbag.
One could imagine Brian De Palma being right at home with this kind of material, and he’d certainly have played up its trashier aspects. Soderbergh lends Side Effects an air of respectability it might not quite deserve, or at least warrant. For all that it shirks saying anything of value this is manages to satisfy as wriggling, writhing thriller that keeps you hooked. It’s just not great brain fodder.