SIDE EFFECTS



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.

IN WITH THE IN CROWD: Reviews of the movies In the Loop and the Informant


In the Loop may be a comedy, but it’s also one of the most depressing movies of the year. It’s political in a way only the British usually are—bitter, brittle and more bitchy than Noel Coward (House of Cards anyone). It’s also a study of contrasts between how the British get things done and how the Americans get things done. In England one bullies and threatens, at times becoming physically violent. To survive an assault, one simply stands up to it and refuses to let anyone get a leg up (a friend of mine says it’s all the outcome of British private schools and there are times you can almost hear someone say, “Sir, may I please have another”). In the U.S., one is manipulative and sneaky, dancing around everything, outfoxing someone while trying to find their weak spot. The only thing the two groups have in common is the number of four letter words they use. The story is all about the events leading up to a declaration of war between the U.S. and the Middle East. Though the country is never mentioned by name, it’s ridiculous not to realize the target is Iraq. Because of this, the movie begins to resemble French playwright Jean Giraudoux’s The Trojan War Will Not Take Place, in which a valiant Hector tries his best to stop a war that will not be stopped. In the end, even though there comes a moment when you think the good guys will win, it becomes clear that conflict is a foregone conclusion because the war with Iraq indeed did take place. The comedy then gives way to tragedy. The ensemble cast is first rate with Peter Capaldi the foul mouthed stand out doing his role of mid-level bureaucrat one better than the one he played in the terrific TV series, Torchwood: Children of Men. The script (by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci—who also directed, Ian Martin and Tony Roche) is bollocksy brilliant, full of poetic vulgarities. The only problem here is that the script is so brilliant, it sometimes seems so carried away with itself, that one loses track of the some of the characters’ motivations. Somewhere along the way, I became a bit unclear just why some in England wanted to go to war and join forces with the U.S. and why others didn’t. See this as a double feature with Dr. Strangelove.

In the Informant! (with an exclamation point—excuse me), Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre joins the great sociopathic liars of the silver screen like Harriet Craig (Craig’s Wife), Stephen Glass (Shattered Glass), and Mary Tilford (The Children’s Hour). Not a bad group to be a member of. The story is about an FBI investigation into price fixing in the corn industry, but the real suspense is not if the FBI will make their case—the real suspense derives from how long Whitacre can keep up the lying and how often he can dig himself out of whatever hole he’s crawled into. I’m not sure it’s a brilliant performance. Damon is good, but there is a certain flatness to his performance. At the same time, there’s a certain flatness to everything: the cinematography, the bland 1970’s décor, the dated music by Marvin Hamlisch (though this last rises above the flatness). Of course, the 1970’s was a bland decade and director Steven Soderbergh seems to make the most of it and though I’m not sure how, it does seem to add something to the proceedings. The supporting cast also has that somewhat 1970’s look about them as well with the Smothers Brothers perhaps the most recognizable. It’s a well written entertainment (script by Scott Z. Burns) with perhaps its major flaw being the character of Ginger Whitacre, Whitacre’s wife, played by Melanie Lynskey. The author either couldn’t, or even worse, couldn’t be bothered, to try to understand what made Ginger tick. What little character she has is provided by Lynskey’s lovely, lilting voice. But the actress deserved better.