Saturday, February 16, 2013

Review of "Side Effects"

While I have not liked every movie that Steven Soderbergh puts out, personally I find his batting average to be high. In particular, I think Soderbergh has a good understanding of what makes our present  time such an a compelling, weird, and ultimately alarming moment to be alive during. From "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" onward through "Traffic," and last year's "Contagion", Soderburgh has displayed a rare journalistic approach to exotic questions of identity and virtual existence.

Side Effects is probably the most tightly focused example of Soderbergh' particular brand of dislocation and explorations of phenomenological narrative, rather than span continents, cultures, and social classes, the story hones in on just a few successful professionals living in New York City. The movie begins with an apartment that is clearly the scene of some kind of violence. Bloody footprints lead from a kitchen to living room, where a wooden boat sits upon a chair. The narrative skips backwards in time to follow Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) prepare to meet her husband, Martin (unmemorable role for Channing Tatum) in his lead-up to release from jail after spending a few years on an insider-trading charge. Emily is clearly ambivalent about this resumption of her married life, we learn that she has a history of depression. Her eyes blank and hollow, she buckles herself into her car, flattens the accelerator, and launches her car at the nearest concrete wall. Jude Law plays Dr. Jonathan Banks, a psychiatrist agreeing to see Emily following the accident. Emily hears of a new drug called Ablixia to treat depression and convinces Banks to write her a prescription. At first the drug seems to work a miracle, Emily becomes more passionate, upbeat, and the cinematography shifts from a gray wash of bleary city streets to scenes of warmth and burnished domesticity. However, Martin quickly learns that Ablixia does have profound side effects: sleepwalking. Despite her increasingly erratic behavior, Emily insists on seeing the drug through. Finally Martin returns home find Emily sleepwalking, preparing a dinner for three people. He reaches out to wake her only to have wife stab him to death with brutal efficiency.

From there the movie begins to shift its focus in ways. Banks meets professional and personal fall-out over his role in the death of Martin and eventually stripped of every last vestige of his formerly happy life he becomes obsessed to discover the truth behind the murder. Emily is committed to a mental health facility, bewildered by loss and guilt.

From even this highly truncated synopsis, you might get a sense of a movie composed of intricate twists and distractions. For about two thirds of the movie, the steady pulse of revelation and tragedy makes for  compelling cinema. Side Effects is not precisely a Christopher Nolan style puzzle box, but it does keep its convoluted plot focused on the unravelling of a series of mysteries, some of them as plausible as tomorrow's headlines, others basically impossible. Rooney Mara is fantastic in this role, adept at springing from one mental state to another: Depression becomes pharmaceutically enhanced contentment, grief becomes simmering rage. After a fairly obnoxious turn as an unscrupulous medical blogger in "Contagion," Jude Law plays a sympathetic, if flawed psychiatrist. It's hard to believe that the over-worked, harried man at the beginning of the film is the same guy as the calculating and cold-blooded Sherlock Holmes of the final reel, but Law certainly does his best to bridge the gap.

What separates "Side Effects" from other, more successful Soderbergh experiments is the degree of disbelief suspension the movie requires. In order for this film to work, we have to accept that the world is populated by exactly two kinds of people: conniving, vicious people motivated by shear predatory impulses and the hapless somnambulants functioning as their prey. Traffic and Contagion were more successful precisely because they showed more complicated worlds filled with imperfect and conflicted individuals. 
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