A miracle drug to help manage anxiety prescribed by a psychiatrist who might be just a bit more interested in receiving payment for helping test it out than in the welfare of their patient. What could go wrong?
In Side Effects, turns out that quite a bit goes wrong, and then unravels in layers with a complex “ah, you didn’t see that coming!” sequence of twists that reminded me of the brilliant Inception.
Except it was way more daft and ultimately didn’t really even make much sense by the time the closing credits roll.
Which is really too bad, because this medical thriller has a lot going for it, including a terrific performance by Rooney Mara as Emily, and the always likable Jude Law as psychiatrist Jonathan Banks, along with a smart production directed by Steven Soderbergh and set in upper Manhattan.
Emily’s married to Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum, and c’mon on, what woman wouldn’t want to be married to Channing?) and the film opens with Martin being released from prison, having been busted for various financial shenanigans. After years of waiting for him, Emily sinks into a depression as her fantasy of his return seems to collide with the reality of them stuck in a crummy apartment after his downfall.
While he was in jail, she’d been in therapy with the swank Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) for depression and anxiety, but when the issue flares up again with Martin’s release from jail, she finds a new therapist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law), who has his own up-and-coming practice and is happy to work with her. Is it because she’s fragile and beautiful, as his colleagues later accuse? Perhaps…
The therapeutic path he prefers, however, is medications to “help you stay calm” and when the standard meds don’t seem to work, he switches her to a promising new drug in its testing phase. But it sure seems to have some unfortunate side effects, including causing Emily to sleep walk and bursts of rage that husband Martin is at a loss on how to deal with.
You can see I’ve couched my descriptions carefully because as is to be expected in a thriller of this ilk, not everything is as it seems, and there are layers within layers and conspiracies within what seems the most innocent relationships.
There are two great reveals in the film, and while the first one was terrific and had me — finally — thinking “ohh, didn’t see that coming!”, the second reveal that shows the first to be yet another red herring just left me frustrated. Another modern Hollywood ending, where everything wraps up neat and clean, with the conspirators busted and the protagonist’s life handily reassembled. The good guy wins, the bad guy loses. Hurray.
My friends are used to me complaining about film endings. There are so, so many films that come out of the Hollywood machine that just end badly. An example? The idiotic ending sequences that mar the already bizarre Tim Burton remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I mean, the original film ended just perfectly, but the remake? Awful. Just awful.
And unfortunately while there’s so much to like in Side Effects, it really needed to end after the first reveal, quickly after, leaving us frustrated and upset that the good guy didn’t win and that there was much more going on during the film than we realized. A little ambiguity? That’s good. Look at the delicious ending to Inception that still grabs me when I rewatch the film.
I’ll be candid. There’s not much sci-fi about Side Effects, but it really is 95% of a crisp, smartly written medical thriller. If you could just cut out the last few minutes…
So with my closing statement in mind, I have two scores for Side Effects.
Before the ending:
After seeing the ending: