A woman (Rooney Mara) turns to prescription medication as a way of handling her anxiety concerning her husband's (Channing Tatum) upcoming release from prison.
Side Effects presumes to be a movie about the ethical minefield that is America’s pharmaceutical industry. Its focus on a new doctor’s trial-and-error treatments for a young depressive exposes the degree of guesswork that goes into mental health diagnoses and the inherent risks this poses for both the patient and the professional.
A third act plot twist takes the narrative off on a truly ridiculous tangent
An out-of-context opening scene suggests the aftermath of an extreme event: blood streaks on a hardwood floor and a smudgy red footprint. They speak to an act of violence: Upon whom? By whom? We don’t know, until the details are back-filled in a three-month chronology.
We’re drip-fed information about a young woman (Rooney Mara)’s struggle to keep her demons at bay, and the disturbing impact her condition is having on her marriage. Her doctor (Jude Law) is concerned about her recent attempts to self-harm, and when established drugs fail to ward off 'the poisonous fog bank rolling in", he places her on a clinical trial of a new wonder drug (with full disclosure that he’ll benefit from a drug company kickback). Suffice it to say, the trial has dramatic consequences, and the ensuing media circus lays the blame squarely on the attending shrink.
It’s worth noting that this uneasy study of altered states and tipping points occurs in a New York coping with the fallout of the Global Financial Crisis; Emily is the wife of a convicted insider trader, adjusting to yet-more changed circumstances as her freed husband (Channing Tatum) re-enters her life; Law’s psychologist is overcommitted to dual Manhattan mortgages, supporting his jobseeker partner and stepson. As patient and doctor negotiate a satisfactory course of treatment, the setting and its context places added emphasis on the extent to which circumstance informs motivation and dictates action.
For a good hour or so, Side Effects is a fascinating and timely investigation into the ethics and boundaries of a professional’s duty of care. Mara brings her talent for physicality to the role of Emily, modulating her elfin features to the volume of her character’s tormented extremes. (The gaunt glamour is shot in loving close-up by her director.) Even Law uses his trademark twitchiness to good effect, as the professional consequences become personal.
Performances are generally fine with the glaring exception of a laughably earnest Catherine Zeta Jones (channelling '90s Demi Moore) as Emily’s previous therapist. Sporting the visual resumé of a 'Professional Lady Doctor’ (i.e. power suit, severe hairstyle and prop glasses), she exhibits intense, frowny concern for her former charge’s recurring behaviour.
Zeta Jones seems to be acting in an entirely different film, until a third act plot twist from script writer Scott Z. Burns takes the narrative off on a truly ridiculous tangent. Burns dusts off hoary tropes in order to give Side Effects a loopy potboiler ending. **Skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoilers ** Others may be quick to forgive its more daft elements but the misogynistic/homophobic overtones of the 'it was the crazy lesbians all along!!’ twist make it a bitter pill to swallow.
Soderbergh is well known for experimenting in different genres throughout his prolific career"¦ but it’s rare for him to hurl quite so many into the one film, as he tries to here. If the rumours are true and Soderbergh is indeed taking time out from theatrical feature filmmaking for a while, it may well be for the best. It's just a pity that Side Effects is his swansong.