THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
The pharmaceutical industry is a strange beast. We've reached the point where medications are marketed in magazines and television ads just like Coke or Pepsi. You can go into your doctor's office and tell him what meds you want to take. Drug reps ply physicians with all kinds of goodies (from pens to fruit baskets to trips) just to get them to write prescriptions for their products. There is something deeply unnerving about all this. Should getting medication be so similar to ordering a meal at McDonalds? Side Effects, the new film from Steven Soderbergh, deals with this phenomenon, envisioning a worst-case scenario for where it could lead.
Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor, a young woman whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison after a four-year stint for insider trading. Although she should be happy about his return, Emily finds herself deeply depressed and suicidal. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), tries her on a bunch of different meds, but none seem to work. Then Emily asks him about a new-ish drug she's heard about, Ablixa. He prescribes her some. While it does seem to elevate her affect, it also causes some troubling behavior, including sleepwalking. Something happens during one of these states, and Dr. Banks ends up in a firestorm because of it. Side Effects asks the question: If a person does something uncharacteristic while on meds, does the prescribing physician have any culpability for keeping the patient on the drug?
The early scenes in the film are chilling. We see Emily going through her crippling depression, struggling to hold on. She also grapples with the effects the Ablixa has on her. It makes her feel good, but it also comes with a cost. Soderbergh shoots these scenes in a very restrained, clinical style, so that we sense the emotional bottoming-out that Emily is experiencing. There are also some extraordinarily compelling questions raised by the movie. At one point, Dr. Banks is hired to be a “consultant” to a drug company. His job is to recruit subjects to take new medications. The story explores the idea that a psychiatrist being paid by a drug company may not be able to make the most impartial judgments on behalf of his patients. I like the way Scott Z. Burns' screenplay examines tough issues, holding everyone at least partially accountable for the “pop a pill” mentality that is indicative of our society.
Rooney Mara is excellent as Emily. Sometimes when actors portray depressed characters, they overdo it. Mara wisely avoids histrionics, instead going for those withdrawn, introverted feelings people get when going through really bad melancholia. Jude Law gives an equally strong performance, playing a guy who thinks he's doing right by his patient, only to discover that there are things he may have missed. As the plot progresses, the screws tighten on Dr. Banks, and Law expertly shows his mounting desperation to save his career. Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones (as Emily's former psychiatrist) also do fine work in supporting roles.
There is only one thing I didn't like about Side Effects, but it's a substantial one. I'm not wild about the big midpoint plot twist. It renders the second half of the film slightly less hard-hitting than the first half. The exploration of pharmaceutical use gets downplayed a bit, right at the moment where it should become most pointed. What happens is still very clever, surprising, and entertaining; however, it does take the movie down a somewhat different road, one that – to me, at least – didn't have the same gut-punch power that the initial hour had. Is it fair to criticize a movie for what you want it to be rather than what it really is? Perhaps not. Still, I can't deny that the gear-shifting came as a slight disappointment.
Let me stress again that the second hour is still filled with first-rate acting, and what Dr. Banks ends up doing is definitely intriguing. Side Effects is very much worth seeing, my one complaint aside. Soderbergh claims he's retiring after this film, but don't believe it. He's not only one of the most innovative directors around, but also one of the few with the nerve to tackle this subject matter at all. While it may not be the scathing indictment of the “business” of selling meds that it could – and probably should – be, Side Effects still gets credit for asking some of the right questions and delivering a few intelligent thrills.
( out of four)
Side Effects is rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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