The 1980’s called; they want their villain back.
Side Effects is the new thriller written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh (it’s suppose to be Soderbergh’s penultimate movie, but time will tell). I have always considered Soderbergh to be the Michael Curtiz of contemporary cinema. Like Curtiz, he helms solid movies that are well crafted and quite entertaining. And like Curtiz, that’s all they usually are. Curtiz was not a particularly great director, just a superb craftsman of routine studio assignments. He only made one really great movie, Casablanca, and that was great only by accident. It’s hard to say whether Soderbergh will ever even achieve that (his best chances right now are Traffic and Che, with Che being the far superior choice).
Continuing in that tradition, Side Effects is well made, but also a tad routine. It gets the job done and is entertaining, but one can’t say much more than that. In fact, if truth be told, one can actually say a lot less. I really don’t think it works all that well; at least not for me.
The basic premise revolves around a psychiatrist played very handsomely by Jude Law (as if there is any other way for him to play a character) who proscribes a particular medication for a patient, Rooney Mara (of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame); let’s just say that after that, things go a tad awry for the good doc. Also on board for the ride is Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Mara’s former therapist.
The movie begins as a social message picture that has such a serious anti-medication slant that it almost seems as if it was written by a Scientologist. It accuses the psychiatric industry of exploiting people (mainly women) in order to sell drugs that probably aren’t helping or needed (and if they work, it’s not because they work, but because the users have been manipulated into believing they work). There is a whiff of hypocrisy here because the screenplay feels like it’s just as exploitive of the people using medication as the pill industry is. Burns and Soderbergh don’t really care about the medicated and their illnesses and desperation any more than the pill industry does. In both cases, the poor schnooks are just there to further an agenda.
But then something happens. The big plot turn that changes everything. And it’s shocking and people gasp and sit up in their seats—except for me, who turned to his friend and told him exactly what was going on (I even knew what was going to happen before it happened). And since the characters aren’t all that interesting, all I’m doing now is waiting to find out whether I’m right or not. And I am.
The final third of the movie is the most interesting. That’s when Law starts fighting back. What he does may not always be that convincing (what he does is more what someone does in a movie than in real life), and I do feel that Burns and Soderbergh cheat a bit here and there, but it is entertaining and fun and suspenseful, so there’s that to make up for the rest.
But there’s another issue here. The big co-villain is that staple of 1980’s villainy, the evil lesbian. And I suppose there is something to be said for progress. I’m not sure what, but still, if this movie had been made back then, there quite possibly would have been demonstrations in the street. Now we’ve progressed to the point where a lesbian villain casts not a whiff of controversy. But when you combine that with the other staple of movie villainy, the woman trying to do a man’s job, but is incompetent at it because she is a woman and is therefore much weaker than a man because she is a victim of her own inherent unstable emotional state, the whole solution to this thriller feels depressingly uninspired and unimaginative; somewhat like Magic Mike, but without all the rear nudity to keep you interested.
What may be even more depressing is that Law reconciles with all the people who betrayed him, including a particularly unsupportive (and not quite believable) wife (let’s just say that women don’t come off too well in this movie—even of Law’s two partners, though both want him out for what happened, the woman’s a “bitch” about it, while the man is more understanding and even tempered). I didn’t understand why Burns and Soderbergh chose to do this. I bought this even less than the plot as a whole and thought that after everything Law went through he deserved a much happier ending. But que sera sera.
Burns and Soderbergh have collaborated before, on Contagion and The Informant!, and in both cases, the movies were much more original and exciting. Here, to be perfectly honest, I felt that they were phoning it in, and getting the wrong number at times.