Worst Case

Before Fiona decided to write about SIDE EFFECTS, I had written my own piece, covering some similar ground. In the spirit of waste-not-want-not, I present it here. Due to the nature of the film, it is hard to write about meaningfully without spoilers, so those still considering seeing it probably shouldn’t read the following —


So, SIDE EFFECTS is announced at Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical feature, and yes, he will be missed. Fiona and I went because of a keen personal interest in what we took to be the subject matter, but the film’s big plot twist, about which much more later (and those thinking of seeing the movie, who have not yet done so, should avoid this whole article like the plague, or the latest Uwe Boll movie) reveals that the subject of the movie is not what it seemed to be.

I’ve just read Bad Pharma, by doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre, which is an impassioned takedown of the way the pharmaceutical industry conspires to prevent doctors and patients from knowing the true effects of the medication available to them. Opinions are bought up, dissenting voices are intimidated and silenced, and we the public, by buying marked-up drugs, pay for the advertising campaigns which mislead us (and the big companies spend far more on ads than they do on r&d).


All of which seeps nicely into the first act of Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns’ film. In addition, the treatment of mental illness is impressively restrained and sensitive, and the filmmaking typically assured. Rooney Mara evokes the deadening low-affect despair of depression without overplaying it, or boring the audience, or sleepwalking through the role like Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, say.

Then comes the killing. At this point it becomes quite clear that, in addition to throwing in topical bits like the insider trading that landed Channing Tatum’s character in prison and triggered Mara’s depression, the movie is going to push things towards a kind of melodrama. A crisp, shiny, chilly melodrama, but still a worst-case version of its scenario that pushes events further than they would be likely to go in a typical case. This seems a shame: the film has already shown the ability to find dramatic interest and value in plausible, low-key situations that brim over with natural emotion. But by taking things to such an extreme the film does not lose the ability to make meaningful comment on medicine and mental illness and society and the law. It’s the next plot twist that rules out meaningful comment, as the film stops being about mental illness altogether, and becomes about killer lesbians. From KEANE to BASIC INSTINCT in one reveal.

Soderbergh himself disagrees with me, as you’d expect ~

“So I think Scott’s great idea was to use psychopharmacology in the same way that “Double Indemnity” uses the insurance business. That then becomes the Trojan horse to hide a thriller in. He’s very good at that, at identifying sticky ideas and then stuffing them with other things that make them more, that make them not completely disposable when you leave the theater.”

And he could argue that, since here I am discussing the issues raised in the first half of the film, he’s right — the movie does raise these issues in such a way that we do at least remember them. But rather than taking them to a meaningful conclusion, the movie veers off into thriller territory — Soderbergh cited FATAL ATTRACTION as an influence — so that the questions of depression and treatment become just a smokescreen. nobody’s really mentally ill in the film, and nobody really suffers side effects from their treatment, so it can’t say anything about that. The only issue that remains relevant in part two is insider trading, and that’s tied up in a conspiracy that’s so unlikely you can’t really take it seriously. I mean, it works fine as a wacky plot twist, it just doesn’t have any real-world implications because, although technically it’s all within the range of the possible, it’s not something anyone would ever DO.

The point about the Trojan Horse was it was an innocent-looking wooden horse, but the contents were armed to the teeth. Soderbergh’s film is more like a pack of Greek soldiers which charges on then cracks open to reveal an inert and trivial sculpted stallion.

A woman I met at some social function once asked me over the sausage and mash if I could name a film featuring lesbians in major roles where they didn’t murder somebody or get murdered themselves. My mind went blank. It’s still blank. There are things like GO FISH, for sure, but it’s hard to think of anything in the mainstream which doesn’t marry same-sex female inclinations to homicide, not usually to make any deliberate point but as a function of plot. OK, thrillers tend to swarm with killers and victims, so you could argue that it would be over-optimistic to expect them to buck this stereotype, but consider —

If BASIC INSTINCT ended a couple of shots earlier, the killer would be a straight woman, not a bisexual.


And if SIDE EFFECTS were re-cast with Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones in one another’s roles, we’d be spared the revelation that Mara and Zeta-Jones are not only (gasp!) murderers but (double gasp!) gay. And we’d be spared the dodgy image of CJZ being led off in handcuffs with her shirt gaping open. Soderbergh treats that moment with discretion, it’s framed in a non-gloating way, but it feels like a gloating scene (paralleled in his distinguished only by the rather distasteful treatment of Ellen Barkin in OCEAN’S 13).

It didn’t have to be about killer lesbians.

Of course, in objecting to the whole thrust of the film’s second half, I’m essentially complaining that Soderbergh didn’t make the film I’d like to see made. Which is arguably unfair, and I’ll admit that — my screenwriter self should probably stay away from my critic self. But I’d still like to see somebody make that other SIDE EFFECTS, the one which has actual side effects in it.

12 Responses to “Worst Case”

  1. James S Says:

    I think you’re completely justified in your feelings about the film. I felt the same if not stronger. I think it’s a good rule of thumb that you shouldn’t change the nature of your film, unless the new idea is much more interesting. And this wasn’t.

    What made me really angry is that Soderbergh, unlike many American filmmakers has the clout and the skill to make a really interesting film about depression and the pharma trade in America. But instead it’s *just* a clever thriller, and we have lot of those already. I also think a lot of critics were much more forgiving about this because it’s his “last” film which gives it a kind of status.

    I like Soderbergh as a director, but I like his films on a film by film basis (like Stephen Frears). And this one really didn’t fly for me. But I think Candelabra is going to be great.

  2. The Kids Are Alright! Although in that one, Mark Ruffalo does get *emotionally* murdered by lesbianism.

  3. I barely notice things like The Kids Are Alright (mild US indies) so it wasn’t on my radar, but yes, it definitely counts. The problem may be that most of the films I see have murder in them!

    Excited about Behind the Candelabra. You can probably assess the interest level of Soderbergh film has to offer based on how much he had to struggle to get it made!

  4. I think you’ve got The Kids Are Alright backwards. It’s Ruffalo’s character who disrupts the lesbian-run family.

  5. For such a smart guy Soderbergh’s long shown a breathtaking indifference to content. It can be downright mindless, as in the “Ocean’s” movies, light as a feather, as in “Haywire” (which I love as a corrective to bloated genre pieces that pile on unnecessary backstory and phony emotion), or just amazingly thoughtless, as in “Erin Brockovich”, which veers into psycho thriller territory in the nonsensical Tracy Walter scenes and labors to canonize Erin even though she spends half the movie making terrible decisions. I think he literally does not care what a movie says, no matter how much or in what ways the content is off, so long as the framework allows him to perform his stylistic tricks. The lesbian stuff and the sudden switch to a thriller flick in “Side Effects”, like the heavy-handed moralizing that comes crashing out of nowhere into “Magic Mike”, are just another couple of boxcars on that train of apathy. It’s really fucked up, and if it was a director who didn’t come up with a “The Limey” or “Haywire” every so often, I expect I’d hate the guy.

  6. The ambition of the Ocean’s films was to be smart, pretty, and relatively benign — no killing and nastiness. Although, strangely, the third one really depressed me because of the mistreatment of the hotel inspector guy.

    I was starting to really like Soderbergh’s movies with this last run, though — Haywire and Contagion particularly. And he seems a very nice chap. But yes, there is a content problem.

  7. He’s very odd. He’s so prolific he begs comparison with Ruiz. But they’re so glib and superficial one wonders who he imagines he’s making them for.

    His recent speech against Hollywood production practices all have to with the powers that be “standing in his way.” But at one level I really can’t blame them. How do you market these films?

  8. Well, Soderbergh has had quite a few successes, sometimes with surprising choices.

    I think the point is that if the studio has agreed to make a film, they should let whoever’s directing get on with the job — if they’ve chosen a bad director, the results will reflect that, and if they’ve chosen a good director, she or he will work best unfettered. By all means challenge and question, that’s helpful, but what seems to be frustrating Soderbergh is unwarranted interference.

    The problem marketing Side Effects is that it’s a much sexier, more commercial subject than it pretends to be, but you can’t sell that without spoiling the surprises. Hoist by its own prozac.

  9. I want to see Side Effects again, because after having the same reaction you did as I was watching it, I began to wonder later if the plot twists in the second half were a sleight of hand to distract us from considering the morality of Jude Law’s character. Isn’t he an amoral monster who ends up profiting from some fairly unscrupulous behavior?

  10. Yes, he is. But the narrative causes us to lose sympathy for everyone in the end.

  11. Enjoyed his Singani ad!

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