More noise than signal

Side Effects

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

Emily (Rooney Mara) is struggling with life after the return of husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison, after a stint inside for insider trading. In what she later describes as a momentary lapse, she drives her car at speed into a wall of her garage. While getting checked out in hospital, psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks is called in to consult and, after promising to start a series of consultations, releases her back to the mean streets.

At these sessions, in amongst fleshing out the characterisation of both Jonathan and Emily’s home life, a drug is prescribed to deal with the anxiety Emily faces. This has an unfortunate side effect in that Emily starts sleepwalking, and well, apparently sleep-preparing-breakfast as well. This only seems mildly irritating at first, until Emily wakes up covered in blood, holding a knife, with Martin dead on the floor.

The film then starts to go down a path of trying to work out if Emily is responsible for her actions while under the influence of the drugs, and also how much responsibility her Doctor should shoulder in this situation, and how all involved handle the stress this situation causes. It makes a credible show of heading along this path quite nicely, thank you so very much, before taking a bit of a twist in the third act that, in common with all reviews, I very much feel would ruin the film if revealed. So I shan’t, although I’ll circle back to it in a minute.

Jude Law’s an actor I’ve often struggled to get a handle on. He has talent, a certain sense of style and a decent amount of charisma that somehow never seemed to translate into great leading role performances, especially if the role calls for a smiley, chirpy kind of lead. Witness the horrors of the remake of Alfie. Yet, when playing a more restrained and complicated role such as in Gattaca, which was the first time he really grabbed my attention, he can be brilliant. While his Dr. Jonathan Banks isn’t a desperately complex character, it has just enough hints of something in his past that he’s not completely squeaky clean that give Law something to get his teeth into, and that makes him a more interesting character than a put-upon doctor.

The supporting cast is just as effective, although you could make a solid case for Rooney Mara’s performance being somewhat hamstrung by her character’s personality and medication. She’s often cold and distant, which is absolutely necessary for the character and the plot.

Our opinion of Steven Soderbergh blows a little hot and cold around these parts, but even in films that I don’t like you can’t help but notice his visual flair, and that’s used to great effect here. He also has something of a knack for getting great performances out of people you would not typically expect to have great performances, and yes, I am looking at you, Catherine Zeta Jones. All in all, he’s done a terrific job in taking what could easily have been conventional, made-for-TV material and polished, honed and shined it up as well as anyone in the business.

Now, about that twist. It’s an interesting twist, but it’s kind of a cheat. It deserves some credit for being reasonably plausible, as these things go. There’s nothing as stupendously idiotic as in, say, Identity, where it turned out every character in the film was a personalisation of a nutter’s MPD flare-up. This is, if not particularly likely, at least largely possible. No, it cheats by being unpredictable purely on the basis of not telling you any of the information you would need to predict it, until well after the twist occurs, and even then it’s not particularly well illuminated. It’s not just that it’s hiding the corners of the plot’s jigsaw puzzle pieces from you, it’s hiding all of them, and the picture of what the puzzle is, then it turns out you should have been playing Hungry Hungry Hippos in the first place.

Even if it’s not a narrative twist for the ages, it’s a solid one, and as it’s not a last minute middle finger, as is common in this sort of thing, how the protagonists deal with the reveal allows the film to retain it’s prevailing character arcs and also give a sense of conclusion to the story. So it’s a certainly a better film than Identity, but seeing as there’s not too many worse films than Identity, that’s not saying much.

So, summing up, Identity is a really terrible film and you definitely should not watch it. Side Effects? Well, actually, that’s got quite a lot going for it, and deserves at least consideration for your viewing attention. Strong performances, a solid script and stylish, efficient direction from Soderberg. It’s not the most exciting film with which to leave a directorial career, I guess. It would seem more appropriate if it was either an envelope-pushing masterpiece or an envelope-pushing disaster, and a solid, well-told B- drama doesn’t seem to be the most fitting way to bookend Soderberg’a movie career. Perhaps that’s the greatest twist that Side Effects has in store for us.

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