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Soderbergh’s ‘Side Effects’ a prescription better left unfilled

Film Review | 2 out of 5 stars

Published: Friday, February 8, 2013

Updated: Saturday, February 9, 2013 15:02

Warning, the film “Side Effects” may result in delusional thoughts, paranoia concerning pharmacology, disorientation from too many plot twists and general disappointment in an otherwise promising film.

Director Steven Soderbergh, who captivated audiences with blockbusters like “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001) and “Michael Clayton” (2007), has progressed still further in his downward spiral that began with 2011’s “Contagion.” Much like “Contagion,” “Side Effects” is a bitter pill to swallow that tries to compensate for its poor screenwriting with outrageous narrative loop−de−loops and a cast of well−known actors.

The upcoming release centers on the emotionless Emily (Rooney Mara), who grudgingly undergoes treatment from a psychiatrist (Jude Law) after attempting suicide when her husband (Channing Tatum) returns home from prison. Getting confused yet? You should be.

The film spins and sputters through endless clinic waiting rooms and psychological breakdowns on yachts until a very early climax when Emily, on a fictional new drug called Ablixa that is pending FDA approval, kills her husband in a somnambular stupor. Here, the film’s less−than−subtle commentary on our overly medicated society and the side effects it experiences totally jumps the shark — all within the first half−hour.

The remainder of the movie tries to tackle the oft−repeated question, “Who’s crazy?” Jude Law flies into mania as he simultaneously tries to save his reputation, career and family and goes to court to prove that Mara is an insane, cold−blooded murderer. His conspiracy theories abound, and he goes so far as to suggest a secret lesbian relationship between Emily and her former psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta−Jones).

Although the film generally takes a bumpy course, there are a few redeeming aspects to the otherwise heinous ride that is “Side Effects.” The use of deception, as well as the constant questioning of truth and motives, actively engage viewers and leave them on the edge of their seats throughout. In terms of cinematography, the sterile, quick editing cuts and minimalist use of score add to the film’s sense of monotony at the start and later build tension.

Mara’s monotone, one−note acting perfectly complements this cinematic minimalism and captivates the audience. Her plainness is all too believable, and she convincingly projects the apathy of someone weighed down on far too many prescriptions. Furthermore, her blankness makes her explosive moments later in the film all the more powerful. Jude Law’s devolution from a put−together doctor to man−on−the−edge is also craftfully handled, but it is Zeta Jones in her supporting role whose slyness steals the show.

Sadly, Tatum — who is billed as one of the film’s leads — is quickly disposed of before he even has the chance to make an impression on the audience. The muddled narrative that follows his death is somehow both too complicated and too obvious. “Side Effects’” plot twists in the second half of the film quickly become predictable, as opposed to shocking, at a dizzying rate. Additionally, repeatedly showing Tatum’s murder as the opening scene, and then twice later on from different perspectives, is an amateurish writing ploy. Worst of all is the attempt to make the film come full circle, literally repeating the opening scene as its last.

The biggest issue with the film, though, is its blase treatment of those seeking psychological treatment. Although the film quietly argues that there are no hard−and−fast lines between sanity and insanity, its poor depiction of drug reps, psychologists, pharmacologists and even patients leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It belittles the severity of diagnosed illnesses as normalcy quickly crumbles into lunacy and characters impersonate typical symptoms. More than anything else, the overly obvious message is beaten over the audience’s head with a prescription pad, showing no faith in the viewer to understand subtlety.

Soderbergh, in what is possibly his last film, definitely tried to make an impression. His combination of story lines and genres like crime, thriller and drama is classic, but was ill−conceived and poorly achieved in “Side Effects.” If this were his first film, it’d be easy to say he showed promise but, as his swan song, Soderbergh left much of his talent to waste.

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