Side Effects (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Side Effects (2013)

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Pretty packagingAndrew LIKE BannerIt's better to regard Side Effects, one of the last films the great Steven Soderbergh has deemed to direct, as a dessert instead of a meal.  Like a pastry it's crafted, lovingly, with great attention to detail and texture.  But taken on its own the film is a bit too light, lacking some of the meaty substance of his earlier films, and while it feels great going down doesn't have much of a lingering after-effect.

I mean all this as a form of praise with slight disappointment.  This is the man whose taste for genre delving has given us Out of Sight, Ocean's Thirteen (still my favorite of the trilogy), The Informant!, and many other movies that linger on the corners of my memory.  There may not be that spark or scene that will set my mind on fire when I think of Side Effects but I will still regard it pleasantly in the future.

This film has multiple moments that perfectly embody hopeless depression.

This film has multiple moments that perfectly embody hopeless depression.

If it still sounds like I'm underselling it a bit it's because the overall film pales in comparison to first act and the amazing introduction.  The camera pans over a beautiful day in an idyllic city, then slowly zooms in on a single window in a pleasant, if nondescript, apartment complex.  Then the soundtrack starts to take on a disquieting hum and we enter through the window.  Finding a blood stain on the floor the camera slowly tracks the trail, leading up to two presents, one wrapped and the other, a small wooden boat, waiting for someone to come home and claim them.

As this is a story about the ubiquity of abuse - be it physical, psychological, or medicinal - this was an eerie and effective way of establishing that the events to come can happen to anyone.  The psychological is the most important one to Side Effects, as Emily (Rooney Mara) struggles with her suicidal depression after her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison.  It's clear she's lived her life on his whims, waited for him all those months he was away, and is quietly pressured into giving up what little she's built for herself to follow him elsewhere.  After an unsuccessful suicide attempt she receives the care of Dr. Banks (Jude Law), a man who would sooner prescribe drugs than talk through a problem.

Deep depression has barely been as painfully cataloged as it is during this first act analyzing Emily.  Central to this is Rooney Mara's performance, who plays Emily not with an overwhelming sadness, but an emptiness.  When she sits and stares out the window of the train it's not that the weight of the world is crushing her but that she doesn't care if it does.  Soderbergh films these empty spaces with her just off to the side as if we were expecting her to occupy them at some point.  Then the soundtrack returns, putting forth the smallest effort to sound cheery, and the depression tableaux is complete.

Even when the standard thriller elements start coming together the cast remains uniformly excellent.

Even when the standard thriller elements start coming together the cast remains uniformly excellent.

If the rest of the film were this observant about Emily's world it would be a riskier, but potentially worse, film.  Instead something happens to shake them all from their complacency on her depression and the movie becomes a straight-ahead thriller.  It's not that I mind this, and I love that Soderbergh does keep us questioning the psychological stability of our players even after the focus begins to turn away from Emily, but the events feel set in stone too far in advance with its implacable progression through the events of the plot.  Some, especially the emerging details involving Dr. Banks, are surprising while others involving Emily's former therapist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) are eye rolling.

Even as the film begins to go on a track I loved the omnipresent pharmaceutical industry and how it is choking the life out of every one of the principals.  Commercials are on TVs, ads on the periphery and center-stage in magazines, and each one of their friends who is taking or researching the one drug that will fix all their problems.  This is greatly encapsulated by one of the scenes not featuring a drug when an angry visitor just wants get her present to the recipient in prison.  There's no need to look inside the pretty packaging and how dare you suggest it could be dangerous - if you could just agree to let her have it everything will be ok.

Side Effects show why Soderbergh is one of the titanic directors, working in yet another genre and providing it with just enough of a twist and his own magic to make it his own.  I may not love the film, but I can still respect the craft that went into it, even as it slowly fades to the recesses of my mind.

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Side Effects - TailSide Effects (2013)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Screenplay written by Scott Z. Burns.
Starring Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Posted by Andrew

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