Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Side Effects

Somewhat Indirect Spoilers

Director Steven Soderbergh's alleged cinematic swan song, 2013's SIDE EFFECTS, was most certainly not the film I was expecting. Hoped for? I had fairly low expectations for what appeared to be another "Is this reality or not?" drama/thriller. Is it all in his/her head? Particularly as the plot involves having the lead character falls under the influence of pharmaceuticals - here, a popular (fictional) antidepressant called Ablixa. The trailers made it appear to be at least a wannabe neo-Hitchcockian drama, maybe something along the lines of MARNIE with a few doses of JACOB'S LADDER.

I should've paid more attention to the press notes: Soderbergh was going for a different feel, one that evoked crime thrillers like JAGGED EDGE. But also the films of Adrian Lyne, who in fact directed JACOB'S LADDER. But there is no discernible supernatural element to SIDE EFFECTS, or psychosis drama ala Robert Altman's IMAGES. What we in fact get is half a movie that examines, with some realism, the difficulties of depression, and another half that is content with plot twists that occur every 10 minutes or so.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is reunited after 4 years with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) who had been jailed for insider trading. But Emily is still depressed, resorting to a few attempts at suicide. Psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is assigned for her care and after some trial and error prescribes what seems to be the right drug: Ablixa. The side effect of sleepwalking seems to be of minor concern, until....

No, I will not divulge.  But I will say the movie changes its spots, its playbook quite dramatically, transforming into something else.  I was disheartened. The film had deliberately unfolded, building a tense psychological drama with nicely drawn performances. But then came the second half of SIDE EFFECTS.  Once I realized the path it was now taking, once I adjusted to it,  it kinda worked in a tawdry mystery sorta way. But geez, I was expecting more from Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns.  They abandon the psychological angle, the discomforting early moments and go for the cheese. Easy double-cross melodrama I'd seen too many times.  It lets viewers off the hook and gives them cheap thrills. I was actually reminded of FINAL ANALYSIS and BASIC INSTINCT by the closing scenes, which prominently feature an aged looking Catherine Zeta Jones as Emily's former shrink.  Things become increasingly preposterous.

I mention the shades of Hitchcock, and they are there in the form of Law's character, a prototypical "hero" who finds himself the accused, then must elude everyone while he finds the truth to clear his name.

Throughout the film, there are some knowing jabs at the pharmaceutical industry, scenes with drug reps as they candidly discuss the business. I'd like to see a film that examines the lifespan of a blockbuster drug that within five years is mentioned in attorney's advertisements as they shill for plaintiffs for mega class action suits.

I don't really believe that Soderbergh has hung up his bullhorn for good. I've been puzzled by many of the projects he's chosen, but am usually impressed by his skills. He likes what you might call "novelty" films. I'd almost rather see him bow out with one of his stunts than a high gloss schizophrenic drama/thriller that after, hmm, final analysis offers precious little.

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