CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: SIDE EFFECTS (2013)
By Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: A hospital room. MICHAEL ARRUDA , wearing a white lab coat and holding a chart, addresses a young woman.)
MICHAEL ARRUDA: My chart says you’re feeling depressed. Is that true?
WOMAN: You’re the one holding the chart. Shouldn’t you know what the chart says?
MA: No, I meant, is it true that you’re depressed?
WOMAN: Yes. I’m depressed something awful. It’s so bad that I have trouble getting out of bed in the morning.
MA: Are you married?
WOMAN: Yes. Here’s a picture of my husband. (Hands MA a picture of a shirtless hunk of a man.)
MA (looking at picture of hunky husband): No wonder you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning.
WOMAN: Can you help me? Can you give me some pills or something?
MA: Well, I’m supposed to, but we’re such a pill dependent society, I really wish we could try some natural remedies first.
WOMAN: Do these natural remedies work?
MA: Well, no. But these pills, they just have so many— side effects. (CUE dramatic music.)
WOMAN: The last pills I took made me drowsy and I couldn’t stay awake.
MA: Oh, that won’t happen. My partner and associate can take care of that for you.
(Door bursts open, and L.L. SOARES enters the examination room, also wearing a lab coat.)
L.L. SOARES (looks at woman): Is this the patient?
MA: Yes, she’s afraid the pills will make her sleepy.
LS (leans closely into her face): Look at me. Take a good look at my face! (contorts his face into a horrifying scowl, causing the woman to recoil in terror.) If you find yourself feeling sleepy, you’re gonna see my face! Do you want to see my face?
LS: The second you start nodding off, I’ll be in your room, and you’re gonna have to deal with the likes of me! Are you sleepy now?
LS: Are the pills gonna make you sleepy later?
LS: Good. You’re cured. You can go home now. We’ll bill your insurance.
WOMAN: Gee, thanks. (Exits)
LS: I should’ve been a doctor!
MA (shaking his head): No, you shouldn’t. Anyway, that was our last patient of the day. Shall we review today’s movie?
LS: Why, of course! You start. I need to wash up for this afternoon’s operation. (starts washing blood off his hands.)
MA: Operation? Anyway, no matter. Welcome folks, to another edition of CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT. Today we’re reviewing SIDE EFFECTS (2013), the latest thriller from director Steven Soderbergh, and rumor has it this will be Soderbergh’s last movie, as it’s been said that he plans to retire after this.
Not sure why. Soderbergh’s not an old guy. He just turned 50.
LS: I think he has other interests and wants to pursue things other than movies. Which is too bad, because he’s so good at it.
MA: I don’t know. I’m hot and cold with Soderbergh’s body of work, mostly cold.
LS: Not everything he does it great. But he does so many different kinds of movies—he’s just really interesting. You know you’re not going to always get the same old thing with Soderbergh.
Oh, and some people may notice that SIDE EFFECTS came out in theaters a week ago in most places. We would have reviewed it earlier, but we were buried under several feet of snow last weekend in New England, and some of us even lost power.
MA: But you can’t keep a good Cinema Knife Fighter down! So, here we are a week later with our SIDE EFFECTS review.
LS: Anything, so long as I don’t have to review BEAUTIFUL CREATURES.
MA: SIDE EFFECTS (2013) opens with a young woman Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) getting ready to re-start her life with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum, MAGIC MIKE himself), who has just been released from prison after serving a sentence for insider trading. She should be ecstatic, right? But she’s not. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, as she finds herself dealing with serious depression, so serious that she attempts to kill herself by driving her car into a cement wall.
MA: In the emergency room, where oddly, she has only received minor scratches and bruises, she meets psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). When she tells him about her depression, he agrees to treat her. He prescribes an antidepressant medication for her, and when that doesn’t work, he decides to learn more about her history by contacting her former psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Banks also happens to be a paid consultant for a new anti-depressant medication on the market, and he eventually puts Emily on this new medication.
One of the drawbacks of the medication is it makes Emily sleepy, and she sleepwalks. No big deal, until the day when in a sleepwalking stupor she stabs and kills her husband.
LS: Oops, sorry honey!
MA: From this point, the movie switches gears dramatically. First it deals with how responsible Emily may or not be for the crime, given her mental and drug induced state, and then, when the story breaks that Dr. Banks was the doctor who prescribed the medication for her, it moves towards the pressure Banks feels when suddenly everyone and their grandmother is painting him as an irresponsible psychiatrist. Banks loses his job, his consulting gig, and eventually his wife and stepson leave him.
Finally, the film swerves yet again when Banks begins to investigate all that has happened, and begins to discover that things aren’t as they seem where his former patient is concerned.
LS: Yeah, this one definitely took some turns I wasn’t expecting. The first half or so of the movie seemed almost like a Public Service Announcement about the way this country over-prescribes medications for illnesses like depression, and how doctors are enticed by offers of big money to push specific brands. Also, you know those commercials for medications where they list side effects that go on for half an hour? That seemed like the inspiration for this movie. With all the side effects everything seems to have—it’s a wonder we trust any drugs at all.
MA: SIDE EFFECTS is a thriller that had me early on but lost me midway through as it became more and more convoluted with an intricate plot that just didn’t work for me. I liked the initial workings of the story, when it seemed this would be a tale about medicine gone wrong, and just who bears the responsibility for such a thing: the patient, the doctor who should have known better, who should have known exactly what it was he was prescribing, or the drug companies who produced the drug in the first place. These thoughts are firmly rooted in reality. We really are a drug dependent society, and this plot, had it remained firm to its roots, would have been a compelling drama.
But screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who also penned the screenplay for CONTAGION (2011), another Soderbergh thriller I didn’t like all that much, takes it in a different direction. People suddenly have sinister ulterior motives, and these motivations and actions become more and more farfetched, to the point where near the end of the movie, I really didn’t believe everything that was going on. The story definitely loses credibility towards the end, and as a result, its edge.
LS: Yeah, we’re in total disagreement on this one. The first half – for me – was kind of a drag. I mean, Emily’s story was kind of interesting, but overall, I felt like I’d seen this kind of thing before, and I was worried it might become a preachy diatribe against the pharmaceutical industry. That didn’t seem all that compelling to me.
Then, when things start to change and we realize there is so much more to the story—all of this deception and the twists—and it’s really a completely different kind of movie than we thought – that’s when I started to perk and the movie hooked me. I wanted to see what was going to happen next, and how Jude Law’s Dr. Banks was going to recover his life and reputation after such a devastating event.
MA: I didn’t find it preachy at all. I found it interesting. I guess I was enjoying the drama and wish it had played out that way, rather than turning into a thriller, which I found less realistic.
LS: I didn’t say it was preachy. I said, it seemed to be going in that direction. Then it didn’t.
MA: Well, another problem I had with SIDE EFFECTS is I didn’t like the characters. Dr. Banks is probably the most likeable character in the film, but he grows less likeable as the movie goes on, as the methods he uses when he tries to clear his name are just as bad as those used by the people he’s trying to expose.
LS: I found him believable, because he based his decisions on logical reasons. His motivations made sense. This kind of thing could ruin his career completely, and yet, instead of just accepting his downfall, he is determined to do something about it, and I found that intriguing. I liked that he wasn’t completely likable. It made him seem more human to me.
MA: Emily isn’t likeable at all, and it’s hard to feel sympathy for her husband Martin who was convicted of insider trading and looks for all intents and purposes as if he’s about to follow the same path yet again.
LS: I think she’s likable early on, and kind of sad. She doesn’t stay as sympathetic, but I liked Rooney Mara’s performance.
MA: I agree with you there. I liked Rooney Mara’s performance too.
And Jude Law is fine as Dr. Banks, but I enjoyed him more early on when I liked his character better. Once he starts investigating Emily and her motives, he fluctuates between being obsessed and crazed. It’s hard to get excited about his efforts when he teeters on being psychologically imbalanced himself.
LS: But by seeming unbalanced it added to the dilemma. Is he a trustworthy protagonist? Should we be rooting for this guy? I liked that question mark, and I think Jude Law is, for the most part, a rather underrated actor. He’s good here.
MA: I enjoyed Rooney Mara best, and thought her performance as Emily was the strongest one in the movie. It’s really difficult to read her. Early on, she’s sympathetic, but later, like Law’s Dr. Banks, we’re uncertain what to make of her, and she’s less likeable because of it. Still, it’s a strong performance, and while it’s not as compelling as her work in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011) she succeeds in creating in Emily a woman who at first seems unstable but later is revealed to be very calculating.
LS: Yeah, let’s not say too much about that, but Mara is an actress to watch. I loved her in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, and this role was very different, and I liked seeing her play someone so removed from Lisbeth Salander.
MA: On the other hand, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance as Dr. Victoria Siebert did nothing for me. I didn’t buy into her character or her motivations.
LS: I disagree. I think Zeta-Jones is really a master when it comes to playing stone-cold ice queens who obviously want to control everything around them. I didn’t think her character was sympathetic, but then, she wasn’t meant to be. She was meant to be formidable, and in the scenes where Dr. Banks butts heads with her, Dr. Siebert is a believably formidable foe.
MA: She’s a corpse. That’s how much life she gave her character. I saw and heard her motivations, but I didn’t believe them.
Channing Tatum barely makes an impression as Emily’s husband Martin. If anything, he succeeds in creating a character I didn’t like very much.
LS: I think Tatum is very likable as an actor, and I think that comes through here as well. But you’re right, he’s not given much to do, and it’s a mostly underwritten role.
MA: This movie did remind me somewhat of Soderbergh’s earlier effort CONTAGION. Like that movie, there’s a disconnect here that prevents it from really resonating. There’s also something sterile about the whole production, like a hospital room, that extinguishes any sort of passion one might feel towards its story and its characters.
LS: I didn’t see CONTAGION, but I think Soderbergh is a very capable filmmaker, whether he’s making multi-character blockbusters like TRAFFIC or smaller, tightly-wound thrillers like SIDE EFFECTS. I think he’s a really gifted director, and I hope he reconsiders his “early retirement” from the medium. I think the sometimes “sterile” feel of the movie actually added a tone and feel to the proceedings that worked for me. These are medical professionals who want to keep things “sterile” and safe for themselves, so that didn’t bother me.
MA: I enjoyed the first third of SIDE EFFECTS, but after that, the film started to lose me, as its plot became more convoluted and less believable.
LS: Yep, I think the opposite. I found the first half of the movie to be functional, but not very exciting. When things start to slowly reveal themselves, I found myself drawn into this smart, well-plotted thriller. I think a lot of our readers would really like this movie.
MA: I still say that SIDE EFFECTS starts out promising but doesn’t last, and like a medicine that doesn’t work, you won’t want to stay with it very long.
LS: I would prefer to describe it as a strong, effective medication that takes a little bit to get into your system and work. But once it’s activated, it keeps you glued to the screen.
MA: I give it two knives.
LS: I give it three knives.
MA: So that’s done. What should we do now?
LS: I don’t know about you, but I’m getting the hell out of here. Last time I checked, impersonating doctors is frowned upon.
MA (looks around): Yeah, let’s get out of here.
(They run toward the elevator)
© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives SIDE EFFECTS ~ two knives!
LL Soares gives SIDE EFFECTS ~three knives.