By Chaz Lipp

Steven Soderbergh’s latest film starts off as a wildly heavy-handed critique of the pharmaceutical drug industry. The specific target of scorn is the endless string of medications intended to counteract depression and stabilize moods. In fact, so one-sided and literal is its indictment of anti-depressants, Side Effects (for a while) seems prepared to put a new spin on the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers formula. Pills replace pods. When Emily (Rooney Mara), deeply depressed following her husband’s release from prison, begins shuffling around in the middle of the night—overflowing glasses of milk while preparing dinner in her sleep—you begin to suspect Tom Cruise had a hand in the writing.

For that first hour or so, Side Effects at least seems to be about something. Mara, fresh off her Oscar nomination for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, quietly assembles the pieces of Emily’s broken life and presents them as a palpably realistic depiction of crippling depression. Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) was incarcerated for insider trading, but the seeds of he and Emily’s troubled relationship date even prior. Emily suffered a miscarriage and, coupled with her husband’s time away and subsequent blithe promises to restore their financial success by partnering with his new jail buddy, she now seems emotionally immobilized. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), is overworked and tries drug after drug as a means to treat her.

The big switcheroo Soderbergh pulls midway through will likely divide audiences sharply. What started out as one thing quickly becomes about something else entirely—something entirely less interesting. Those going into Side Effects expecting a twist-laden thriller will likely be relieved to see the film take such a conventional turn. However, anyone who felt invested in what appeared to be a carefully crafted character study, albeit one with something unsettling lurking below the surface, will wonder how they suddenly wound up in an unusually well-produced episode of Law & Order.

I simply can’t go into detail without revealing too many spoilers, but suffice it to say that Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns were more interested in playing tricks with audience expectations than saying anything compelling about the overprescribing of anti-depressants. It’s a shame because the abrupt 180 essentially wastes good work by Mara, Tatum, and especially Law. Following a strange turn of events, Dr. Banks is suddenly embroiled in what feels like a smear campaign based on his course of treatment for Emily. The increasing stress in his professional life spills over into his personal life, with his wife Dierdre (Vinessa Shaw) growing impatient and distrustful. The distrust angle is heightened by the interference of Emily’s previous psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

Running throughout Side Effects is a curious undercurrent of misogyny. Nearly every female character, major or minor, is unpleasant in some way. For a few of these women, “unpleasant” is a considerable understatement—they’re all a bunch of total bitches, when it comes right down to it. Some of that is simply inherent in the story Soderbergh is telling, but it’s still odd seeing such upstanding, stalwart male characters so apparently fearful of the opposite sex. The women of Side Effects are by turns conniving, uncaring, incompetent, and man-hating.

I suspect the largely positive critical response being showered upon Side Effects is due to the respect commanded by Steven Soderbergh. He’s such an eclectic filmmaker, one of those rare A-listers that effortlessly glides between commercially-oriented fare and difficult-themed art house productions. This one (hopefully not his last, despite his talk of retiring) tries to harness the best of both worlds and winds up being neither. The story hinges so thoroughly on its central twist that, even if didn’t have plot holes big enough to drive a car through, completely nullifies its repeat-viewing value. Once you start putting the pieces together, like most “trick” movies, it begins to crumble. Had the exact same movie been directed by someone less esteemed than Soderbergh, it likely would’ve bypassed theaters and become a little-seen direct-to-video slice of inconsequential fluff.

(Photos: Open Road Films)
Chaz Lipp

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