A Psychological Thriller with a Split Personality
Oftentimes the journey toward progress is unpredictable. Case in point, the principal goal of modern medicine is to cure, or where that’s not possible to treat, disease. It’s an exceptionally straightforward goal and few would argue that society has made dramatic progress toward the achievement of that goal over the course of the last century. But, what’s less straightforward is the complexity that comes along with our progress. The idea that one day we would be able to easily cure certain ailments must have seemed entirely reasonable to many people a century ago. But the idea that our cures would themselves help create exceptionally dangerous, drug-resistant versions of the given ailments likely occurred to nearly no one. Similarly, who foresaw the ethical conundrums that result from for-profit drug companies aggressively pushing their products? These are the type of problems which we could only fully appreciate after discovering them during our collective journey down the road to progress.
It’s within this world of modern medical subtlety where Side Effects is set. With a bit of a split personality of its own, the movie is perhaps best described as a mild-mannered psychological thriller dressed up as a cautionary tale. Steven Soderbergh directs an all-star cast including Jude Law and Catherine-Zeta Jones, hence the component pieces are impressive. However, fragments of the story leave something to be desired and ultimately the whole turns out to be decidedly less than the sum of its parts. Nonetheless, if you can look past the social commentary and keep your expectations in check, you’ll likely come away entertained, if nothing else.
As the movie opens, we’re introduced to Emily (Rooney Mara), a somewhat traumatized 28-year-old woman who has been waiting for her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to get out of prison. Having been convicted of insider trading, Martin’s sentence is coming to an end and both he and Emily are preparing for the next phase of their life.
But when Martin is finally released, the couple finds themselves struggling to adjust to their new set of circumstances. In an apparent moment of weakness, Emily makes a decision which lands her in the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). As the story develops, Jonathan prescribes various drugs to treat Emily’s depression, eventually settling on a new (fictitious) drug, Ablixa, after consulting with Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a psychiatrist who had previously cared for Emily.
Before long, Emily commits a horrifying crime while under the influence of Ablixa, although she insists she has no memory of it. The police arrest Emily and a high-profile trial ensues. Due to the resulting negative publicity, Jonathan’s life - which had been nearly picture perfect - begins to unravel in dramatic fashion.
A resentful and increasingly desperate Jonathan goes about trying to piece together what really happened. Some of the pieces he finds don’t fit and he encounters more than one hint that things are not as they seem. The remainder of the movie plays out interestingly - albeit probably not quite as interestingly as those involved with its creation intended.
The main problem with Side Effects is its screenplay. Quite simply, there are more than a couple instances where the scenarios and character behaviors just don’t feel authentic, especially with respect to the various doctors. Additionally, the movie left me feeling like it didn't know what it was trying to accomplish. In the beginning, there clearly is an intention to emphasize the downside of the modern pharmaceutical industry. Every opportunity to make the point is taken. However, about half way through there is a creative gear shift and the focus changes to be more squarely on the thriller aspect of the story. In fact, one could argue that the thriller elements in the latter half diminish the point of the social commentary from the first half. Personally, I would have preferred if the first half was less heavy handed and the creators had fully committed to being a psychological thriller.
Despite these flaws, Side Effects is ultimately an entertaining movie. I doubt it will change your outlook on the state of modern medicine or provide a life-changing cinematic experience. But, you’ll likely be drawn into the story and care about what happens to the principal characters. And after all, isn't that what matters?