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Wednesday
Feb132013

« In Which We Examine The Label On The Bottle »

Very Polished

by SHELBY SHAW 
 
Side Effects  
dir. Steven Soderbergh
106 min.

When my therapist suggested looking into medication to control my anxiety, I simply said, “OK, I’ll think about it”  and I never did anything more. I did not tell her, “OK, and by the way tomorrow I’m going to go see a movie about anti-depressants and murder."

Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh’s supposedly last film prior to retiring now that he claims “movies don’t matter any more,” tells a murder mystery we have seen before but wrapped in contemporary Manhattan, insider trading, and plenty of brand name prescription drugs at least one person in your building has touched before, such as Zoloft, Prozac, Wellbutrin, Adderall, etc.

But this is not a movie about prescription drugs. It is a movie about doing anything for yourself: ridding your life of what seems to drag it down, seducing the person you truly love, and conspiring in the most tangled of ways to achieve enemy and lover number one, money.

And yet,it could easily be said too that Side Effects is really a film about editing. A metaphor for human behavior, of course, but even more so what is and is not shown to audiences. The reveal that seems to continually unravel and uncover itself for the last 45 minutes or so isn’t mainly a short-story kind of statement, a byte of dialogue that turns on your aha consciousness. It is a montage of what you didn’t see happening earlier, the scenes you did not ever think of because  well, why would you?

A screenplay’s pages are the most precious real estate a writer has, so filling up on words and actions un-absolutely-necessary is a bad move. But then Soderbergh shows you exactly these scenes, albeit few, working backwards to show you the spaces that you had been watching, but were unaware of, like having turned your back on the party guests for a moment to pour some more wine.

This short part in the plot’s twist does much to make you think twice about everything you did and did not witness onscreen. It’s a creative catalyst for helping understand what really happened, for helping distinguish between the placebo of the plot and the truly affected. But the ending, a morsel of smart layers, is not enough to hide some of the unintentional flaws that seeped through Scott Z. Burns' script.

Before Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) welcomes home her newly-released-from-jail husband, Martin (Channing Tatum) after a four-year stint from insider trading, she thanks her design-firm boss (Polly Draper) for understanding. The exchange feels modern, short words but sympathetic. I become aware of how close the camera is, particularly on Emily. For the rest of the film, it is largely shot in close-ups that can quickly be disorienting. Upon reflection, it is almost an obsessive character study of Emily.

When Martin and Emily try to have sex for the first time, his heavy breathing feels uncomfortably too loud in the darkness, and when he apologizes to Emily afterwards, I feel he is apologizing to me. Later when they have actual sex thanks to Ablixa in Emily’s life, her face is hidden the entire time from her hair, and after climaxing she abruptly falls off Martin and out of the camera’s focus.

Depressed and lost with trying to restore her life, Emily tries to crash her car, ending up with a concussion in the ER (looking somehow very well put-together and not at all as if she had been in an airbag-deployed car accident) and a visit from the floor psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathon Banks (Jude Law). He softly asks if she tried to hurt herself, and rather than making her stay in the hospital for evaluation, agrees to her pleas to have her come to his office for regular appointments. She had seen a doctor in Greenwich, CT in the same manner since “that structure really helps with hopelessness,” she tells him. I already feel like she might be clued in to too much, but maybe it’s Mara’s calculated performance — the excited young wife when Martin is released, the poised woman at a fancy dinner, the catatonic body unable to respond to the everyday stimuli warranted by someone not feeling crushed by depression. She may always remain mysterious, whether she is alone or with Martin or Banks, but she remains so consistent that it just becomes who Emily Taylor is.

Back in their polished apartment, Martin and his mother (Ann Dowd) can’t believe Emily is going through depression again. The dialogue is flat, and Martin’s frustration feels weak. After she is given her first prescription, Emily starts to exhibit a lack of focus and a concerning demeanor. At work one day she rushes to the bathroom suddenly, and turns to vomit in a stall as her J.Crew-catalogue-esque boss walks in. Regarding Emily in her stall, the boss folds her arms and goes, “Aww.” I didn’t know people gave that sort of response to situations like these. Later, upon learning of the whole murder ordeal, this same nameless boss tells Banks, “God, it’s so tragic.” She sounds like an annoying teenager.

After she murders her husband while sleepwalking on the newest drug Ablixa, the case blows up the news as well as Dr. Banks’ practice – yet he mercilessly works on trying to figure out what happened that Emily cannot remember. Dr. Banks is the epitome of your perfect hero: charming, understanding, intelligent, and good-looking. This gentleman version of law and order is perfectly pulled off by Law, in a seamless transition from his role as the politely sterile Karenin, channeling professional drive and concern in the same accented-breath as when he is making the moves on his new wife Deirdre (Vinessa Shaw). He works when he doesn’t have to. He buys flowers for Deirdre and teaches his new stepson about dreams. He never once regards Emily in a predatorial or sexual way. He turns the other cheek when he is questioned by his partners, by the FBI. His biggest flaw is that he has none.

Deirdre, on the other hand, is frustrated while looking for a job, and openly does not seem to fully respect the nature of her husband’s profession – that sometimes patients require emergencies, such as when a teary Emily finds the two having coffee and desperately needs to talk to Jonathon about another suicide attempt. All the while Deirdre gives her a baffling and disdainful look, more shock than sympathy. Deirdre’s dialogue overall is the bare minimum of her functioning emotions, terse and pointless.

After the murder, Martin’s nameless mother goes to visit Emily where she is detained. When Emily gratefully, although flatly, says she thought her in-law would never want to see her again, Martin’s mother simply gushes in a confused state about how she doesn’t understand this could happen when all the people in the commercials are so happy, they’re all getting better. I laugh out loud in the movie theater at her earnest pleas. Doesn’t she know commercials use scripts and actors?

Meanwhile, Emily’s Greenwich-based doctor from four years ago, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is roped into the whole mess with repeatedly seeing Emily despite Banks being her new doctor. Siebert is the one who introduced Ablixa to Banks, and who has trusty insider juice on Emily (like her unmentioned miscarriage from four years ago). When she first meets Banks, she remarks that it’s a good thing Emily is seeing a man for a doctor. I immediately conclude that Emily was hot for doctor  but Siebert simply alludes it to the whole “daddy issues” thing. This is mentioned later in the film again, but we never actually learn anything at all about Emily’s “daddy issues.” Whenever Siebert is around Banks, I feel like she is oozing visible pheromones from her come-hither smirk, but it is a guarded professionalism that the successful psychiatrist employs, courtesy of Zeta-Jones’ soft-spoken compassion and, when necessary, portrayal of an unhinged negotiator.

There is a lot we don’t learn about, but by the time the film concludes (to some sort of upbeat exotic music that seems horribly placed for a dismally depressing last image), you’ve learned more than you realize. Just remember: drugs are not the answer here.

Shelby Shaw is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer and artist living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about moving the mundane. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Rest Your Head" - Bat for Lashes (mp3)

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