Sometimes “spoilers” don’t spoil very much of our enjoyment of a film. Two excellent recent examples are Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, whose dramatic tension sustains very well in spite of the fact that we already know walking into the cinema that the American hostages escape and Bin Laden doesn’t. Other movies, like some books, demand to be experienced more than once – the first time to be surprised by what you don’t see coming, the second to pick up the clues that you missed the first time around.
It’s in these latter cases that knowing the spoiler ahead of time can really detract from the primary experience, and such was my state when I went to see Steven Soderbergh’s alleged silver-screen swan song, Side Effects. I had made the mistake of reading too many other critics’ reviews of the flick beforehand; a couple of them unfortunately lacked the discretion to withhold key information about the movie’s two primary plot twists. So I knew what was coming, and I knew what to look for. Harrumph.
Though I don’t intend to do the same here, I can’t fault those reviewers too much, really, because it’s difficult to talk about Side Effects with any degree of depth without spilling the beans. In fact, my biggest issue with the premise of this movie is unmentionable beyond describing it as a matter of Political Correctness, if I don’t want to spoil your fun. And I think that you will find the film fun, if you enjoy psychological puzzlers à la Spellbound.
But Side Effects is also infuriating, in a way, because it sets us up to want more in the way of sociopolitical commentary than it ends up delivering. The story involves a man named Martin (Channing Tatum) who is finishing up a prison term for insider trading and the wife who is awaiting his release, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, who was so good in the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Emily has a history of depression and suffers a relapse after Martin comes home. She drives her car into a parking garage wall, and although she’s saved by the airbag, it’s treated as a suicide attempt. To avoid being institutionalized, she has to agree to regular treatment by a psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).
At first Side Effects seems to be all about the seductive wiles of Big Pharma. Director Soderbergh – who also did the cinematography, under a pseudonym – lulls the viewer with frequent intervals of Impressionistic scenery and New Agey music, clearly meant to evoke the ubiquitous TV ads for antidepressants, tranquilizers and anti-insomnia drugs, as Emily doses up on one prescription after another without success. Eventually Dr. Banks proposes that she try out Ablixa, a fictional new antidepressant still in the trial stage. The subtext is that Banks has agreed to participate in the study and tout the drug to his patients because he is under financial stress due to his wife’s unemployment, and the pharmaceutical company that manufactures Ablixa has made him a sweet offer.
But Ablixa has a little-known side effect: It can cause sleepwalking. And it is in that state that Emily apparently commits a murder, of which she has no recollection when she awakes. The rest of the plot hinges on the question of her culpability. Banks becomes an expert witness at her trial, and consults with Emily’s former shrink, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), to dig deeper into her medical history.
But the negative publicity surrounding the case sends Banks’s medical practice into a tailspin; he gets dumped by his partners as well as his pharmaceutical sponsors. Financial desperation and the desire to clear his own name feed his obsessive/compulsive need to get to the bottom of what’s really going on with his client. Thus we are plunged into a world where everyone (the filmmakers included) is practicing deception of one kind or another – and everyone needs meds: At one point even the psychiatrist, on the verge of burnout, asks his former partner for a scrip for the stimulant Adderall, typically used to treat ADHD.
There isn’t a whole lot more that can be said without unveiling the surprises that are supposed to be the payoffs of Side Effects. I can’t even vouch for how successfully they are pulled off, since I lost my own innocence too soon. Soderbergh, who’s wielding his Altmanesque camera here while contriving his hommage to Hitchcock (with help from Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns), sustains his reputation for impeccable filmcraft, and both Law and Mara do yeoman work in fairly demanding roles. Those who revel in this suspensy sort of vehicle are most likely to find it a corking good thriller – as long as they don’t know too much. So I’ll just shut up now.