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.