After making a suicide attempt, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) – whose husband (Channing Tatum) has just returned home from a four-year prison term – falls under the care of psychiatrist Jon Banks (Jude Law). Banks prescribes a new type of anti-depressant, with unexpected and tragic consequences.
Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is a medically-centred thriller that promises to be one kind of film before taking a sharp turn into being a second – and much less interesting – kind. It promises its audience a fair amount, but then fails to deliver. That actually makes the film more frustrating than anything: rather than simply being bad, it sets itself up to be genuinely great and then crudely disappoints. Given the calibre of its director and lead cast, its poor quality makes it actively enraging.
At the centre of Side Effects is the issue of pharmaceutical companies enticing medical consultants and physicians to promote and prescribe their drugs in the field. It is an area rich with possibilities for storytelling, given the enormous amounts of money involved and the potential for corruption, mis-prescription, and even loss of life. It is a thin line between outright paying doctors – which is illegal – and enriching them with free travel, conference and academic paper opportunities, and even consulting fees as a part of the process. In Side Effects Emily is prescribed an experimental new drug that Banks has been encouraged to promote, and it results in a shocking tragedy. There is initially an open question over who is to blame: Banks, the pharmaceutical company, the psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who puts Banks onto the drug, or even Emily herself – who may not have been entirely truthful when treated for her depression.
All of this potential is ultimately squandered in a film that peaks at the end of its second act, and then goes for cheap and lazy options – not to mention unrealistic ones – in its climax. Earlier complexities are blown away by a nasty sensationalist streak that is not only unconvincing but visibly impossible. Characters behave against their established natures in order to reach this poor conclusion. For a director whose past works have included Out of Sight (1998), Traffic (2000), and Erin Brockovich (2000), it is frankly an embarrassment.
None of this, of course, is the fault of the cast. Jude Law continues to demonstrate a superbly developed sense of naturalism; he is one of the most underrated actors of his generation, delivering one knock-out performance after another while being largely taken for granted. Zeta-Jones and Tatum both deliver strong supporting work – although Zeta-Jones struggles a little with an under-written part. Rooney Mara is visibly doing an awful lot of work trying to make an inconsistently developed character make some sort of sense. It is a tribute to her skill that she is successful as she is.
Technically the film is straight-forward, with a naturalistic look and tone that pushes the focus onto the characters instead of the visuals. With a stronger script than the one Scott Z. Burns provides, it would have been a perfect choice.
This is a profoundly disappointing film. Under usual circumstances, I would avoid criticising a movie for not being what I wanted it to be. In this case, however, the movie actively promises a smart, intelligent, and socially relevant thriller and delivers tired sensationalism instead.