SIDE EFFECTS B
USA (106 mi) 2013 d: Steven Soderbergh Official site
What starts out as a pharmaceutical soap opera turns on a dime into an identity thriller, a psychological, behind-the-scenes power play between doctor and patient, where there’s some question about who’s really in control, where blackmail and embezzlement are commonplace, turning this into a moral cesspool where one never knows who’s really holding the cards. This kind of deception takes on multiple layers of fraud and behind-the-scenes shenanigans that may leave you shaking your head in befuddled puzzlement, not in trying to figure it all out, but in how cheesy it all plays out, becoming overly obvious by the end instead of remaining a mystery. Except for an HBO made-for-TV Liberace movie called Behind the Candelabra starring Michael Douglas, this is the final movie Soderbergh has lined up, as he intends to take his theatrical abilities elsewhere, supposedly directly into theater, hoping to direct stage plays and perhaps write. Soderbergh has always made cutting edge films, even the ones that didn’t work were always technically proficient, beautifully shot by the director himself, where he is known for a clean and luminous look to his films. This one is no exception, as Soderbergh, director, cinematographer, and editor all rolled into one, has always been in the forefront in making quality digital films, where TRAFFIC (2000) ushered in a new era of filmmaking, allowing cameramen to use smaller and more lightweight, highly mobile cameras, making him somewhat responsible for changing the direction of the movie industry away from actual film, for better or for worse, and while others may have failed miserably in making the transition, Soderbergh’s films have continued to look first rate, often indistinguishable from real film. Lately, perhaps due to more conventional scripts, Soderbergh’s films have failed to impress at the elite level of filmmaking, and while always interesting, none have achieved the level of mastery exhibited prior to his baffling venture into commercial Hollywood filmmaking with OCEAN’S ELEVEN (2001).
While there’s much about this film that works brilliantly, such as the opening sequence where a camera stares from outside a Manhattan building, slowly panning its way inside one particular window where it witnesses the bloody aftermath of a murder, made all the more alluring by the intricately quiet and complex music by Thomas Newman, easily the best thing in the movie. The movie backtracks several months where a young girl, Emily, played by Rooney Mara, who happens to be the great grand-daughter of Art Rooney, the founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is seen trying to gussy herself up for a prison visit with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum), who is nearing the end of his four-year sentence for inside trading. Emily’s pale and ghost-like appearance suggests the look of a mannequin with fragile, already shattered interior nerves, a woman who turns to prescription medication as a way of handling her anxiety concerning her husband's upcoming release from prison. When he’s released, she crumbles into deeper despair, inexplicably driving a car head-on into a cement wall, where she survives intact, even more vacant eyed than she was before, but finding herself under the care of a busy hospital shrink Dr. Banks (Jude Law), who treats her with various medicines, but she’s a difficult patient, as she struggles with each and every one, complaining of various side effects which leave her nearly debilitated and unable to function. At his wits end, he consults her previous psychiatrist, Dr. Siebert, Catherine Zeta-Jones, looking matronly with her hair pulled back in a bun and wearing glasses, who suggests the use of a new medicine on the market. Having tried everything else with no success, with Emily reduced to zombie status where she’s either sleepless and lethargic all the time or a sleepwalker, up at all hours of the night behaving peculiarly, remembering nothing afterwards, Dr. Banks desperately tries Siebert’s recommendation, which seems to be having a beneficial effect until one of the strange side effects of the drug kicks in with disastrous results, explaining the opening sequence.
Charged with murder, Emily is sentenced to a psychiatric hospital, innocent by reason of insanity, where she remains under strict psychiatric care. Due to the fallout from the press, the focus of all the public attention turns on the doctor (Banks) who prescribed the drug, blaming him for the crime, where in the process he loses his practice (from all the negative publicity) and his wife (who receives incriminating evidence implicating her husband sexually with the patient), growing increasingly obsessed by what he finds to be strange coincidences behind Emily and Dr. Siebert, who was working for the drug manufacturer at the time she recommended this particular drug. Banks begins to think there’s a secret conspiracy going on behind the scenes, where the film suddenly shifts from a pharmaceutical melodrama where Banks has lost everything, desperate to hold onto any shred of his former self, his life literally crumbling before our eyes, into a sophisticated blackmail scheme pitting two accomplished psychiatrists against one another, where the patient herself may hold the key to unlocking this myriad of strange incidents that have led not only to her arrest but to his sudden downfall. Paranoia fills the air with possible conspiracies, where the police have zero interest, as the case is closed, where all of this accumulating behind-the-scenes drama begins to take center stage, a continuously shifting balance of power that turns into a creepy thriller. Just as baffling, the public, which was initially so outraged, loses all interest in the case, where Banks himself has become collateral damage, a peculiar side effect to all the strange and bizarre occurrences that led to a perception that Emily was just a victim of circumstances. Once the police and public perception reaches a neat and tidy conclusion, it’s hard to alter what appears to be yesterday’s headlines, as all of Banks’s attempts to clear his name have an unflatteringly self-centered motivation behind them. The film is ultimately undone by the melodramatic overkill that attempts to shift the audience’s interest in a whodunit, so to speak, where it becomes less a pharmaceutically inspired, psychological horror story, as alluded to initially, and more of a simple murder mystery that unravels the old fashioned way, through lies, blackmail, and deception, revitalizing the mood of 40’s shadowy film noirs. Unfortunately, this final chapter comes together all too easily, where the audience’s sympathies in the end are likely to feel cheated.