February 19, 2013

Movie Review: Side Effects (2013)

Steven Soderbergh's latest, and possibly final, feature is two thirds of a good movie. Seriously. The movie starts off so well and right when I felt it was really going to take off for the climax, the rug gets pulled out from under me and I am left flat on my face just wondering what happened. You know, not every movie needs a twist and this is a good example of a film that is going along just fine, having an impact, and being a genuinely well made film before they decide to change everything up.

Side Effects is a film that seemed to have something to say. The story concerns pharmaceuticals, prescriptions, treatments, murder, blame, and of course, side effects. Considering a lot of what has gone on in this country in recent times, I thought the tale was a timely one. There is no question that the mental health system needs some work and I am sure not many would argue that people are often over-prescribed mood altering medications without knowing exactly how they are going to react. This movie takes an look at that, through the prism of entertainment. Never forget this is meant to entertain, a work of fiction.

The subject matter could very easily have made this a preachy lecture of a film, not unlike what Promised Land ultimately felt like. Writer Scott Z. Burns, collaborating with Soderbergh for the this time (following The Informant and Contagion), does a fine job (at least pre-twist) of avoiding the reaching and keeping the characters and story interesting while keeping the bigger ideas of medicinal malpractice and tragic side effects that can result in fine focus.

To give a quick look at the story, it involves Emily (Rooney Mara) and her recently released from prison husband, Martin (Channing Tatum). What should have been a happy reunion and a renewed look for the future turns out to be anything but. It is rough on Emily and she starts to see a psychiatrist (Jude Law) and is eventually prescribed a powerful anti-depressant. Something bad happens while under he influence of the psychotropic drug and eyes turn towards the doctor.

The questions are interesting. It makes you look at the medical field with perhaps a slightly more critical eye, or rethink the drugs you are prescribed. Now, it's not that they are all bad, but the application may not be used appropriately all the time. Anyway, it is all good till that twist that takes a timely and interesting movie and turns it into a run of the mill thriller that has to explain its every move, rewriting most of what came before it. It felt lazy, as of hey all ran out of steam and lost their way, resorting to tried and true thriller tropes.

Despite my problems with the direction the story takes, the film is shot beautifully and the performance are really good. There is no denying that Steven Soderbergh can make a film visually interesting. In Side Effects he makes really good use of soft focus, shallow focus, selective focus, whatever, I don't know all the actual terms, but it is very effective trying to translate, visually, the idea of being under the influence of some form of pharmaceutical,much like the film Perfume translated the sense of smell visually.

As for the performances, Rooney Mara gave a knockout performance. Sure, I don't like the direction the plot takes, but there is no failing her performance. I have come to expect the solid work from the other players involved, even Tatum (not a great actor, but not necessarily a detriment to the film). However, it is Mara's performance that really carries the film, her work is pivotal in making this work as well as it does. I remember when I first saw her in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, her mumbling annoyed the hell out of me,but she has fast come into her own as a really good actress between this and the Dragon Tattoo remake. She covers a lot of emotional ground here and it is fascinating to watch.

This is certainly a movie worth checking out, even with the issues in the last act. It is beautiful shot and well acted and has some interesting things to say early on. If only the kept it going, this could have been a great one rather than merely good.


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