Sunday, 17 March 2013


There was a point in Side Effects where I realised that what I was watching was an episode of Law & Order with compressed air pumped into it; perhaps it was as I started to envisage Elaine Stritch arguing to Sam Waterston that Rooney Mara had been driven beyond rational understanding by having to watch Jude Law act (call it Jude Law & Disorder?). Then the film began to morph, and starting trying to become an episode of Law & Order as it might have been directed by Alfred Hitchock, or someone thinking maybe he could be the next Hitch.

That may be somewhat harsh to what is an entertaining enough movie that I assume picked up a lot of serious cred because the critics and the Hollywood community saw it as an 'issue' film, and maybe because they were able to compare notes on their own prescriptions. Soderbergh has show he can keep this sort of movie moving along, playing with time sometimes, and, in this case, playing with style as well—imitating commercials, setting New York City backgrounds to reflect characters, and even recreating a perfect Edward Hopper shot. It is a pleasure to follow.

In effect, it's a film of two halves, as Law's British-educated psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks, first finds his career and life falling apart when a patient of his murders her husband while she's suffering side effects of drugs he's prescribed. Then it switches pace as the now rock-bottom Law begins to see a different pattern in what has happened, and manages to outwit the people who have outwitted the law as well as Law. That second half becomes very mechanical, and since some of it has been telegraphed – Catharine Zeta Jones seems always to be shot in a sort of dark-grained Seventies look that is the visual equivalent to those four bass notes on the movie-house organ – not least because horn-rimmed glasses do not a psychiatrist make; she's the least-likely shrink since Barbara Streisand in Prince Of Tides.

Law is actually perfect for the first part of the movie; he's got the classic film noir combination of being too cute for his own good and not half as smart as he thinks he is. He needed to pay attention when Emily tells him 'I thought sick people sometimes make things up.' Thus, as his life collapses around him, he's a break-down about to happen. It is also interesting the way his support system: wife and partners, desert him so quickly—this seems to be one of Soderbergh's major concerns, and indeed when the film is resolved it is with the family put back together, like a Disney film. The point seems to be that New York is rougher than Durham University. And in fact, Vinessa Shaw, as Banks' wife Deidre, seemed to be playing the wife in the film version of Jo Nesbo's Headhunters.

But in the second half, Law somehow manages to outsmart the two women who thus far have shown themselves to be smarter than him, and, in the case of Rooney Mara's Emily, capable of acting him under the table too. He seems to be morphing, with his devil's peak, into Kaiser Sosay. Mara's performance is somewhat flashy, in the sense that, like Tim Robbins in Mystic River, there's a lot of shuffling around, but it's at the edges that she really shines—the character isn't that far removed from Lisbeth Salander, but Mara is probably the challenger to Jennifer Lawrence right now.

Worth noting, however, is the lesbian undercurrent, another similarity with the Salander role. I kept thinking this was some kind of double-level play with Michael Douglas and Fatal Attraction, but it was pretty obvious rather early on that there was something going on, and it was a little disappointing to see that kind of Jerry Falwell male fantasy that has women lovers become husband-killers. Channing Tatum, the husband who's gone to jail for insider trading, and becomes the victim, seems almost as doped up as his wife, whether that's freedom, prison, or the effects of big financial business in New York I could not say. And I'm not sure why Mara's Emily would have to teach Dr Seifert about derivatives if what she were doing was simply shorting pharmaceutical stocks.

But the finish rings false until it gets to the single successful Hitchockian moment, Banks' revenge on Emily, by keeping her medicated in a facility. There are moments of late Fifties Hitch: the interview with Russell Jones excellent as the medical ethics investigator, or even Michael Nathanson's strangely detached DA. But there are others redolent of Law & Order, especially Polly Draper's scene-stealing turns as Emily's boss. In the end, however, as you watch Banks' partners, or the drug company reps, or the characters in the commercials, you begin to wonder if this is Soderbergh's foray into David Cronenberg territory, and how it would have played out had it gone in that direction. Side Effects proves yet again how facile and effective a genre director Soderbergh can be--you get the sense he looks at a script and breaks it down, then puts it back together in his own way, hopping genres. He would have been excellent in the old studio system, if he were allowed to be.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

It is of course impossible for the British psychiatrist to have gone to Durham University. It has no medical or psychiatric department.