Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Side Effects of Side Effects

     Director Steven Soderbergh has been around since 1989's Sex, Lies and Videotape, but he's really hit his stride since the turn of the millennium, churning out a wide variety--full of low-budget quirkiness or big-budget bombast--of feature films in that 12-year time span. Last year, two things happened with his career: he released two really interesting movies (the martial-arts-focused Haywire and the capitalism-metaphor-filled Magic Mike) and announced his retirement (or a significant hiatus) from film directing. Side Effects, which was released this past week, would be his last film released into movie cinemas--he's also got an HBO film about Liberace titled Behind the Candelabra (starring Michael Douglas with Matt Damon as his gay lover) airing later this year. Though he doesn't leave the big screen with a giant explosion of a film, Side Effects is a solid Hitchcockian thriller that speaks bluntly about America's obsession with pharmaceuticals while throwing twists and turns that excite more than frustrate.
      Emily (Rooney Mara, whose bipolar mood swings in Side Effects show that her starring turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn't just a fluke) is a young wife who is depressed and decides she needs to see a shrink after a momentary lapse of judgement leaves her in the hospital. Dr. Banks (Jude Law), takes an interest in Emily, either for her "wounded bird" personality or her interesting situation. Emily's husband (portrayed by a little-more-useless Channing Tatum, unlike in Magic Mike) has just been released from prison--for insider trading--and just wants Emily to get over her depression episodes and have things back the way they were when the couple was first married, madly in love. Emily, who has tried and changed dozens of anti anxiety/depression medications (Prozac, Zoloft, etc.), gets convinced by Dr. Banks to try Ablixa, the new and special thing on the pharmaceutical scene--he's getting paid $50,000 by the drug company to be part of the testing process.
     Speaking of anxiety, Side Effects is the type of film that causes just that, and it's mainly due to Soderbergh's excellent direction--full of claustrophobic closeups, his signature digital video shooting techniques, quick flashes of surprising (sometimes violent) outcomes, and eerie music, it's a film that almost warrants a Prozac popping just to not break out into a sweat. When Emily begins taking Ablixa, abnormal things begin to happen: intense sex, happiness, sleepwalking, and a singular violent act that propels the film into its sharp-turned final third that is typically intense. Did Dr. Banks know some of the terrible side effects of this new drug Ablixa? Are certain people in cahoots with the pharmaceutical company? How real are Emily's depressive states? All questions with (mostly) unpredictable answers.
   The performances are also noticeably solid in Side Effects: Rooney Mara displays some of the same cunning and mood swings that she showed when starring as Stieg Larsson's beloved heroine. And though Emily doesn't have the same penchant for violence when backed into a tight corner, she has a wily way that can turn any situation upside down. Jude Law, as Dr. Banks, stands out a bit more than normal, too. As Emily's psychiatrist, he has a naive sense of being carefree when it comes to prescribing any number of anxiety pills and medications that very well can make people's lives worse. Catherine Zeta-Jones also pops up as a colleague (or rival, depending on the situation) of Banks in the world of psychiatry, but her portrayal is underwhelming and a little cliche. She looks more apt to walk out of a cheap porn movie than a 2013 new release. But (again)Soderbergh's direction always drowns everything in claustrophobia and nail-biting foresight, allowing the viewer to always be present in Emily's struggle with depression and the depressing medication she has to take to survive daily life.
     This isn't some big statement on the condition or circumstances of our pill-filled world, specifically America--the country where every other person you meet is on some sort of pharmaceutical that supposedly makes their life better. But it does enough the raise a few questions about the ethics of prescribing medication with atrocious side effects and living life in a zombie-like haze for no real reason. Side Effects is really a pretty simple film: a tight thriller that is good winter entertainment. It's entertaining, and all you need is a mild suspension of disbelief and a free evening to witness Soderbergh's last entry on a long list of quality films.     (B+)

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