Friday 24 March 2017

Movie Review: Side Effects (2013)

A neo-noir psychological crime drama, Side Effects enjoys a twisty tale but mediocre execution.

Young wife Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is suffering from depression as she awaits the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison. The couple's lavish lifestyle had come to a crashing halt when Martin was arrested and locked up for financial fraud. Martin is freed after finishing his sentence and starts planning to reconstitute their life, but Emily is suicidal; she tries to kill herself by driving head-on into a wall.

She survives, and psychologist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) takes her on as a patient, eventually prescribing Ablixa, an experimental new anti-depressant drug. In researching Emily's background, Jonathan also connects with Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who had previously tried to help Emily. Ablixa appears to improve Emily's mood, but the side effects include sleep walking. Suddenly, a violent crime is committed, and Jonathan finds his life turning upside down and his career threatened with ruin.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects holds promise as an unexpected murder mystery laced with illicit passion, a devious conspiracy, and potentially a lot to say about the pharmaceutical industry, mental health and financial wrong doing. While the twists and turns maintain a decent level of engagement, the film's plot points start tumbling into each other. This is a movie that bites off large chunks and then refuses to chew.

At 106 minutes, the film is shorter than it needs to be for the amount of plot and characters packed in. Soderbergh may be aiming for the compact noir style of no scene longer than it needs to be and absolutely no unnecessary scenes, but he sells the narrative short. As the final third hurtles towards a conclusion, counter conspiracies unfurl at a pace too frantic to generate the appropriate level of appreciation. The rest of the noir elements are more about content than visual style. The story contains almost every foundational plank from crime to sex passing through the manipulation of a clueless man, but the aesthetics are relatively free of the more obvious noir stunts.

The film is hampered by an abrupt change of perspective. The first half is Emily's story, but about halfway through she is effectively marginalized and Side Effects becomes a lot more about Jonathan. While both characters are interesting, neither is provided with enough time or context to become truly rounded.

The cast is solid, with Jude Law controlling his more rascal-like tendencies and delivering an inviting performance despite the limitations of the material. Rooney Mara is the most memorable part of the movie, and Side Effects suffers as her prominence fades. Catherine Zeta-Jones is victimized the most by the film's too-sharp editing. Dr. Victoria Siebert could have been a fascinating character, but here she is reduced to a cartoon schemetress.

Side Effects promises forward momentum, but too often moves sideways.

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