Murder and No Mystery: Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects (2013)

Side Effects is the Soderbergh we have come to expect: clever cinematography, non-diegetic music linking scenes or in place of diegetic sound (Thomas Newman does a nice job with the music here, a composer we have not seen since Erin Brockavich, although I much prefer David Holmes), occasional wit in his characters (Burns is again the screenwriter), some of the same casting choices as prior films, and so on. Nothing seems out of the ordinary, except the nudity, which is a first for Soderbergh’s theatrical releases I believe.

Given its ordinariness, the film’s greatest failure is perhaps the narrative. Side Effects is the story of Emily Taylor’s (Rooney Mara) depression, the side effects from Ablixa, a drug given to her by Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), and the murder of her husband (Channing Tatum) due in part to the side effects (Emily stabs her husband while sleepwalking). The moment Dr. Banks discovers stock prices of Ablixa fluctuated after the accidental murder, he decides to go on a wild search to gather evidence to prove Emily’s feigned illness, intentional killing, and profiteering. It was around this initial questioning of the patient’s depression that I could not help but groan. With approximately 45 minutes or more still remaining in the feature, I simply did not want to wait to find out how or why she did it.

Dr. Banks (Jude Law)

Dr. Banks (Jude Law)

We learn at the beginning of the film that her husband was sent to jail for insider trading, he has been gone 4 years, and during those 4 years we are told later on, Emily had been planning the crime with her former therapist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who could give her advice on drugs, side effects, and depression to act a convincing case, and who is also Emily’s lover. There’s a battle of wits between the two doctors, Emily and Dr. Banks, Dr. Banks and his wife who thinks he is crazy for believing Emily is not crazy, which is all very tiring and for the most part unpleasant to watch. Through perseverance and self-proclaimed genius, after losing his wife and step-son to focus attention on the case, Dr. Banks solves the mystery, Emily gets what she deserves, and the doctor reunites with his horrible unsupportive wife. And I was relieved it was over.

The cast were superb, save Zeta-Jones, and Soderbergh works wonders with his camera and editing. However, the ambiguity that I think was supposed to be there – whether Emily was in fact depressed – seemed either misplaced or lacking. If a director resorts to flashbacks to remind viewers how the supposedly complex plot all connects, the film was inadequate in making the prior events and behaviors apparent during. Or the director believes the audience is too stupid to remember. Former or latter, I am unimpressed. If this is supposed to be a murder mystery along the lines of Alfred Hitchcock, Soderbergh certainly forget the suspense.

A further problem, unrelated to story or form, is the big question mark about the legitimacy of mental illness. In a time where persons who suffer from mental health issues are themselves questioned about the truthfulness of their mental health issues, or are under attack by the New York Police (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/feb/18/nyc-police-begin-roundup-purge-streets-mentally-il/), Side Effects could perhaps perpetuate this attack against mental health care not just by the twists and turns and Emily’s motives, but also via the hilarity and comedy of doctors, pharmaceuticals, and therapy generally in the film. Yes, it is a movie and is part of the story, but I nevertheless felt a little unnerved by some of the portrayed patient/doctor relationships and the overall theme of uncertainly surrounding diagnosis.

I really hope this is not Soderbergh’s swan song.

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