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'Side Effects'? Find A New Drug

Catherine Green |
February 10, 2013 | 11:02 p.m. PST



Channing Tatum and Rooney Mara star. (Facebook)
Channing Tatum and Rooney Mara star. (Facebook)
Billed as a psychological thriller, the only thing cerebral about Steven Soderbergh’s latest film “Side Effects” is its contribution to the increasingly paranoid conversation on prescription drug dependency.

The tagline, “One pill can change your life,” accompanied on the film’s poster by the tense faces of its big-name stars, sets the audience on edge for a suspenseful study of a destructive industry too quick to prescribe.

Rooney Mara’s Emily is an already fragile woman, further pushed off kilter by the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum, chronically afflicted with stupid hats) following a stint in prison for insider trading. We’re at once sympathetic: Mara does an admirable job portraying a shattered wife who’d just barely started to rebuild after having her life taken away, even more so when her depression unravels into apparent hallucinations.

The film is most intriguing in scenes intended to show us the world as addled Emily sees it. The claustrophobic feeling that everyone’s staring at you, a distorted mirror image’s power to throw you off balance — these are parts of her reality that will ring true for members of the audience who have slogged through their own bouts of psychosis. But try as it might, the film doesn’t quite reach the degree of resonating torment as Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” for example.

As believable as Mara is in this aspect of her role, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones are proportionately unconvincing as her psychiatrists, past and present. In part because of the film’s unskillful twists, their characters — Drs. Jonathan Banks and Victoria Siebert, respectively — are inconsistent and, toward the end, downright hammy.

That’s not entirely the fault of the actors, though. Despite said tagline, we in fact see many people affected by many pills throughout the movie. Indeed, it seems every minor character introduced is on something, and will inevitably attempt to push it on someone else. And scenes between Big Pharm and the good Dr. Banks are too smarmy to swallow. “This wasn’t viewed as some sort of expose of that business,” Soderbergh told Indiewire in an interview earlier this month. “But it’s fun when it’s rooted in some reality. It makes the thriller more interesting if you walk out going, yeah, we all know somebody who’s on something.”

Many of us do, but they don’t spring to mind as we watch Emily on her morose quest for a new drug. It’s established this is a woman practiced and well-versed in the world of therapy, but some of her lines feel ripped from a Psychology 101 textbook, and a diagnosis of daddy issues early on is just too easy and clichéd to make her character feel complete.

Soderbergh’s indelicate commentary here points to the film’s ultimate flaw: It tries entirely too hard to be slick, and as a result, often feels overdramatic. We can blame Zeta-Jones for much of that. In the grand scheme of her 15-year career, she’s frequently fallen back on a cat-like persona to inform her characters. But it’s hard to think of a role in the last decade in which this was anything but eye-rollingly ineffective. It might be time to give the schtick a rest.

The same could be said for the director, who claims this will be his last film aside from the upcoming HBO Liberace biopic, “Behind the Candelabra,” now in post-production. Asked to compare “Side Effects” with “Contagion,” for which he also teamed up with writer Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh called the films “cousins,” offering flip-side approaches to the subject of illness. “In this case,” he said, “you’re dealing with multi-billion dollar corporations who are either trying to solve a problem that’s widespread or, I wonder sometimes, trying to create the sense that it’s a widespread problem.” But one could argue the director is only adding to that perception with his own film, rather than serving up a takedown of the industry at large.

Of course, “Side Effects” is not intended to be a documentary. This is purely entertainment, as uncomfortable or personal as the subject matter may be, with beautiful people playing the parts of patients and experts trying to make sense of the human mind. But even movies are supposed to give back, to reach us deep down so that we take away something from watching. In that endeavor, “Side Effects” falls flat, a clunky exercise in poorly thought-out conspiracy theory.

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