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Non-Review Review: Side Effects

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

On one level, Side Effects is a deliciously pulpy medical thriller, with the kind of zig-zagging twisty plot that you’d expect from a Michael Crichton novel. It’s more than satisfying on these terms, almost serving as a feature-length pilot for an imaginary medical drama starring Jude Law. After all, with House off the air, there’s a clear gap in the market for a smooth English actor playing the lead in an unconventional medical drama. If he is sarcastic, all the better. While the genius of the early years of House came from mashing up the medical subgenre with the police procedural to produce a then-unique hybrid, Scott Z. Burns instead blends the medical drama with a decidedly more trashy and sordid thriller to provide a satisfyingly twisty drama.

However, on another level, Side Effects teases issues that are far more interesting than the movie it eventually becomes. It’s very frustrating when your red herrings feel like they’d produce a more thoughtful or insightful piece of cinema than the final story. Side Effects broaches topics that mainstream cinema hasn’t really engaged with, and the opening scenes flirt with the idea of providing an entirely different film. It’s not always fair to judge a film for what it isn’t, but the problem is that Side Effects sets up a much more tempting and intriguing look at medicine than we get with the final product.

Love isn't the only drug...

Love isn’t the only drug…

That’s not to suggest that Side Effects is bad. Indeed, I actually quite liked it. I have a massive weakness for twisty narratives that contort rapidly. The rules within Side Effects are constantly shifting and re-working themselves, creating a film that is wonderfully exciting. It’s very tough to get a read on, as it deftly keeps the audience off-balance. It’s more than just the story itself, though, the film seems constructed in such a way to catch the viewer off-guard. The focus of the story is shifting and changing rapidly, and the audience can’t quite assure themselves a solid footing.

It works very well. Burns is a smart enough writer, and Soderbergh a superb director. There’s enough technical skill here to keep the audience guessing. In fact, you could argue that Side Effects works best as something of a cinematic magic trick. Soderbergh and Burns use misdirection and theatricality to throw us off the scent. There’s a great deal of fun to be had in watching Side Effects to figure out what is going on, and just who knows or knew or didn’t know what, when and where.

Couching criticism...

Couching criticism…

Again, none of this really holds up under too much scrutiny, but that’s part of the charm. There’s a lurid sensationalism to Side Effects that makes it feel like an especially satisfying airport paperback. That’s not to be dismissive of the film in the slightest – there are tonnes of writers and directors who aspire to this sort of pulpy appeal, but can’t quite manage it. The quality in a story like this is watching the skill with which it is executed. And the skill here is superb.

However, there’s a slight catch. Side Effects teases a number of issues early on that it never directly handles. These are set up as key thematic and moral points, but the film cleverly shuffles them around so they serve another purpose at the movie’s climax. It’s a shame, because the ethics of clinical drug trials are fascinating to think about. “For as long as you remain part of this trial, your drugs are free,” Dr. Jonathan Banks promises his patient, signing her up for an experimental drug trial that is earning him a $50,000 kick-back. It’s really hard to imagine anybody pressed for cash could refuse that sort of leverage.

I fought the Law...

I fought the Law…

Similarly, we eavesdrop on a meeting between a bunch of psychiatrists and a pharmaceutical rep. “It’s not against the pharma code to take you guys to lunch,” the rep boasts as they sip wine together, “as long as we talk about business for five minutes.” Although I doubt anybody at the table enjoyed it as much as the banter about golf, it does raise some valid questions about the connections between these big pharmaceutical companies and the doctors who prescribe their medications.

The story hinges on Emily Taylor’s attempts to deal with her depression. It is depression that is anchored in the fact that her husband just spent four years in prison, for white-collar crime. “You say insider trading and people look at you like it’s murder,” Emily explains at one point. It is very tempting to vilify bankers and investors in the current climate, but due process must allow for rehabilitation and reconciliation of those who have served their time.

Well suited to each other...

Well suited to each other…

Living with that shame and that pressure must be daunting, and Side Effects initially looks like it might explore that side of the financial crisis with a bit of nuance and maybe even sympathy that is generally missing from examinations of that sort of crime. After all, we have no reason to believe that Emily was actively complicit in her husband’s schemes, and so it isn’t too radically controversial to suggest that her social stigma is unfair or tragic or sympathetic.

However, after setting up that compelling dramatic hook, Side Effects shifts the emphasis around. This financial aspect of the plot does play into the climax of the story, but not in a way that pays off on any of that drama or offers any insight into the plot point. Instead, Side Effects starts out teasing this big issue-based drama only to rapidly and dynamically morph into something that is radically different. What we get is perfectly satisfying on its own terms, it’s just frustrating given the potential teased in the opening half-hour.

Pharming it out...

Pharming it out…

Soderbergh has put together a fantastic cast. Rooney Mara is going from strength-to-strength at the moment, and is great as the young Emily. Jude Law is fantastic as the ambiguous Dr. Banks. There’s a satisfying uncertainty around his character that persists for most of the film. It’s another of the sly things that Side Effects does quite well, allowing us nothing more than Banks’ words on certain points – inviting us to either take him at his word or to question his version of events.

Side Effects is a perfectly satisfying film by its own measure. I like a pulpy adventure, and Side Effects is pure pulp. However, it suffers because it teases ideas that are more interesting than what actually makes it to the screen. It’s not fair to judge a film on what it could have been, but it does feel like valid criticism when the film itself offers a glimpse of that potential.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

2 Responses

  1. Having done dozens and dozens of clinical trials since I first compared Ivory to Neutrogena in the early 70’s I will tell you that they are all simulacra. In this case of a non-normal volunteer this is a Phase I or III as I forget which way the numbers go from normal volunteer to a volunteer with the problem for which the drug is supposed to be a solution. They are a laugh.

    The pay for a volunteer in this kind of study is not very much, but it is supposed to cover out patient visits, medication, and check ups for often a year or so. It seems like she had plenty to be depressed about. What’s wrong with feeling very sad when if you weren’t feeling very sad that might be cause for concern.

    Haven’t seen it tho but will. Thanks.

    • Check it out. But be warned that it’s more of a thriller than a drama. It teases ethical stuff that ends up being window dressing, but it actually works quite well as an “in the moment” pulpy thriller. There’s one movie in particular that it reminds me of, one I adorefrom the nineties, but some of the twists are so similar that I won’t mention the movie here.

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