Thursday, 28 February 2013


Roadshow Films

Now Showing

While I've never been privy to it, I'm lead to understand that viewers of commercial television in the United States are pummelled, 24-7, with advertisements for various pharmaceutical products. Uppers, downers and mood stabilizers are flogged as commonly as carpet cleaners and celebrity-endorsed cosmetics are on Australian daytime TV. There is a pill for anything and everything which ails you.

Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects starts out almost like a satire of this drug culture, where doctors, in the pockets of pharmaceutical reps, suggest their patients pop a pill to relieve or cure any symptom. "Have you tried this? Have you heard of that?" seems to be every doctor's response to a patient's complaint.

Uptown New York psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), is no different to his colleagues; freely prescribing the latest drug for his patients and happy to partake in pharmaceutical trials for the betterment of his bank account rather than mankind.

So when Dr. Banks' life suddenly turns to shit -- a new patient, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), suffering from depression, kills her husband (Channing Tatum), whilst seemingly in a sleep state having taken the newly-prescribed (by Banks) Ablixa; and subsequent revelations about possible past professional indiscretions send his wife (Vinessa Shaw), stepson and business partners running -- we figure Soderbergh's film is sticking it to the pharmaceutical man. Reap what you sew, drug pedlar. But no.

Side Effects soon takes a 180-degree shift from social commentary to thriller as Banks soon suspects that he's being played for a patsy. But by who and for what end? The who is obvious enough but the why -- other than good old fashioned greed and lust, there's something about the stockmarkets, I think(?) -- may require further explanation. Or is perhaps is best left alone. Scott Z. Burns' screenplay has probably undergone less rigorous testing than any new drug, and thus not suited to closer scrutiny.

But for the most part, Side Effects is an engaging thriller with a terrific central performance by Law. Mara is convincing, too, starting out as victim and slowly revealing herself as something else entirely. I went from feeling sorry for her to wanting to slap her - hard. Catherine Zeta-Jones, however, as a fellow psychiatrist, is not so convincing, and Tatum only appears briefly (and clothed), no doubt as a favour to his Magic Mike director, and to help out with getting the project financed.

The film is said to be Soderbergh's cinema swan song, as the director plans to focus his attentions on television (beginning with his Liberace biopic starring Michael Douglas in the lead role, and Matt Damon as his younger lover). If so, he's not exactly going out on a high but Side Effects, which bears his crisp digital cinematography (which Soderbergh does himself under a pseudonym) and distinctly sterile production design (this is not a romanticized New York), is no placebo either.

There's no spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down which, when at its best, makes Side Effects an enjoyably jagged little pill.

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