Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Side Effects

First, Do No Harm
Physician, Heal Thyself

One of my great joys in life is watching happy-pharm' commercials that spend ten of their thirty seconds extolling the virtues of their chemicals ("It stops your brain from telling you you're SAD!"), then the last 20 of them warning about all the dire side effects of said chemicals up to and including death (and maybe beyond).  That's comedy gold right there, masquerading as serious medical advice, wrapped in ad hucksterism.*

Now, prolific director Steve Soderbergh, who started his career twenty four years ago with Sex, Lies, and Videotape is saying he will end his commercial film career** with Side Effects, an odd mixing of genres that has as its basis all those little warnings for the mystery "miracle" pills that are being foisted on the public for the slightest of symptoms and moods, with the tentative approval of the FDA, and a library of law-suits, concerning their consequences on real human beings.  In that way, it plays on a public's paranoia and trust of just what kind of human experiments might be being financed by the drug cartels, in much the same way as Hitchcock messed with our minds with our basic fears in his long career.  Soderbergh has never been this direct in his work before, making something akin to a traditional suspense-thriller, instead of a character study with sociological underpinnings (The Informant!,  Contagion,  S, L, and V, Traffic) as we're used to from his previous work.

It's a pretty basic story, with some nicely diverting echoes of recent headlines:  Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) works for a New York marketing agency and is dealing with a lot of stress in her life.  Her husband (Channing Tatumis being released from prison after four years for insider trading.   She's been struggling with these issues for awhile, and being treated for depression over the circumstances.  But, once husband comes home, things take a turn for the worst.  

Or actually, don't take a turn—Emily drives her late-model car directly into a garage wall—rather than heading for the "Exit" arrow, she runs INTO the "Exit" arrow.

She suffers a concussion and is taken to the hospital, where she comes under the watchful eye of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who knows exactly what's wrong by deducing "usually when someone hits a brick wall, there are skid marks."  Emily doesn't want to be a bother, and bargains her way out of the E.R. by promising to visit Dr. Banks for therapy.

At this point, a responsible reviewer should say: "Warning: complications may occur, consult your physician."  Let's just say "things get messy" and merely suggest that a nasty case of medical ethics can turn into...a really nasty case of all kinds of ethics.  To say any more would spoil the bumpy ride the film provides, but one doesn't risk too much by sharing a particularly nifty exchange around which the whole film hinges: "Did the person do it?  Are they guilty?" "In the present case, those are two very different things."  Nice little piece of writing, that.  

The screenwriter is Scott Z. Burns (who also wrote Contagion and The Informant!) and he's constructed a medical thriller that takes a few hairpin turns and manages to avoid the guardrails of audience expectations and movie cliches.  And Soderbergh (who shot and edited the film) has cast it impeccably with folks he's worked with before: Law, who's usually fared better at smaller character parts, here finally shows he can carry off a "leading man" role, dominating the film, while making "normal" interesting; Catherine Zeta-Jones shows (again) how versatile she can be in a small but crucial role as a consulting shrink; Channing Tatum makes the most of his part as the husband caught up in a world that he's just re-entered but can't understand.  And Soderbergh rookie Rooney Mara gives a complex performance that's more than a little unpredictable (not surprising, given her history of moving from a straight performance in The Social Network to anything-but in Fincher's version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) looking like what you'd imagine Sandra Bullock's creepy little sister might look like, Mara convincingly pulls off mood shifts that might require an exorcist rather than a prescription.

In many ways, Side Effects is the film many expected last year's Flight to be: instead of a straight-forward look at addictions and their crises, a lot of viewers were expecting there to be some mystery that would neatly tie loose ends and vindicate its protagonist.  But, Side Effects plays with societal responsibility and legalities in a time when the very nature of people's natures is being altered, in the same way that Michael Crichton used to explore science's impacts on us in his books and films, provoking such tough questions and "Are we prepared for this?" "Just because we can do this, should we, and how will we deal with the fall-out?"

In any case, in the theater or after-movie discussions, Side Effects will not cause drowsiness.

Side Effects is a Matinee.

Jude Law learns his practice isn't perfect in Side Effects

* SNL did a fine parody of this type of advertising with a fictional toy-product, the generically-labelled "Happy Fun Ball:"

**  We'll see how long that lasts, but Soderbergh has long grated against turning out commercial product (the one-two punch last year of Haywire and Magic Mike, notwithstanding) for the sake of commercial product, wanting to experiment with non-box-officey topics and distribution avenues.

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