Side Effects

Your doctor knows best.

Rooney Mara, “Side Effects”

Dir. Stephen Soderbergh, with Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum.

It’s a little tricky to write about Side Effects, Stephen Soderbergh’s moody new film about depression, treatment, and other things, and avoid a major spoiler problem.  It’s an interesting film that addresses some important contemporary issues, but it starts out as one kind of film and gradually morphs into another kind altogether.  But even saying that has the potential to give away too much.

The film follows Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young woman in her twenties who struggles with depression.  After a brief opening sequence that suggests some kind of serious violence, the film jumps back three months, and thereafter moves forward chronologically.  Emily’s white-collar husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is in jail for insider trading (I know, I know… hard to believe) and is about to be released.  Emily is increasingly depressed, in part due to the pressures of work and the stress of her husband’s bumpy reentry into the business world.  An apparent suicide attempt puts her under the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), an Emergency Department psychiatrist who chooses not to hospitalize her in favor of private visits and medication.

Things get more complicated, with Emily’s condition apparently worsening.  Dr. Banks, whose personal and financial life is already in turmoil, is enticed by a pharmaceuticals sales rep into a program of clinical (i.e. human) trials for the fictional new anti-depressant Ablixa, which is already being marketed to the public.  At the same time, Banks is under subtle pressure from the patient herself.  Emily is subjected to an onslaught of pharmaceutical advertising and a grapevine humming with talk about the various anti-depressants, including the newest ones and what “worked for me,” and is encouraged repeatedly to “ask your doctor about Ablixa,” which no doubt suits the pharmaceutical companies just fine.

Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones, “Side Effects

After the film catches up to that opening sequence, at about midway, it morphs into a medical mystery-thriller kind of thing, which is where the spoiler problem really kicks in.   The material is handled reasonably well by the director, in some ways, with interesting camerawork focusing attention on details that suggest one or another theories as to what happened and what may be happening.  Overall, though, it’s downhill from there.  The story gets seriously tangled up in its own shoelaces, and the pretty bow at the end doesn’t help.

Rooney Mara (breakout role – Lisbeth Salander in the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is sufficiently convincing as the increasingly troubled Emily, although she seems young for the business crowd that her investment banker husband runs in.  Jude Law, onscreen for as much of the film as Mara, in my opinion has a bone to pick with the screenwriters.  He is a serviceable actor, but his character’s actions and dialogue in the second half often make no sense at all, especially if one has actual doctors or therapists in mind for comparison.  Catherine Zeta-Jones, as Dr. Victoria Siebert, Emily’s previous therapist, in this film at least makes for a thin femme fatale (not a reference to body type).  In her case, though, it seems only partly a shortcoming of the script.

Thriller twists and problems aside, the first half of the film raises the more interesting issues.  As it sets up the central drama of the film it offers a serious look at the problem of the complex, unethical, and at times corrupt relationships between drug companies, media advertising, medical/therapy practitioners, and individual patients.  As we follow Emily through her struggle, the film illustrates how contemporary drug marketing practices can drive the treatment process.  Decisions about medical and psychiatric treatment are made by overworked or lazy doctors under pressure from pharmaceutical companies, marketers, peers, and even patients.  The actual business of doctors prescribing drugs for patients is like some kind of a chemistry experiment, in practice little more than trial and error.  The film suggests that the system itself is the problem, or a big facet of it.   By midway, the potentially severe side effects of anti-depressants, referred to in the title, have apparently come into play, with major dramatic consequences.

What happens at the turn, the thing that changes the film into something else, is a “ripped from the headlines” kind of moment that ought to open the door for the film to dig in even harder, and shine a bright light into the nasty business, but it’s a missed opportunity.  From there on out – and you’ll have to see it for yourself – Side Effects pretty much leaves those topics behind, raised halfway and then dropped.  Instead, the film devolves into a sordid and confusing little tale of bad personal behavior – much like the rest of Soderbergh’s work, in fact, depending on your point of view – with the main problem being one of simple criminal justice of the most individual, personal kind.  A good conspiracy theorist might ask why this is so, why the film sets aside the bigger issues in favor of cheap thrills, and what hand the pharmaceuticals industry might have had in the financing of the film, especially with all the product placement opportunities, but that would be a project for another day.