If a thriller is purely an intellectual exercise in misdirection but contains no tension or actual excitement, can it still be a successful thriller? Side Effects is an interesting experiment in a genre that, at least in America, seems to have devolved into 45 minutes of suspense followed by 45 minutes of implausible action. The film hinges on a murder and a car crash but does not sensationalize or even play up any moment of violence or action. Only one character ever moves faster than a casual stroll and even that is downplayed. Side Effects is all about legal culpability in psychiatry. Emily Taylor becomes increasingly depressed when her husband, Martin, is going to be released from jail after a four year sentence for insider training. A failed suicide attempt lands her in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks, an overworked psychiatrist who wants the best for each of his patients. He tries Emily on a series of SSRIs before finding a good match in Ablixa, a new antidepressant with an unusual side effect. Emily goes off the drug designed to counteract Ablixa's big side effect and winds up involved in a murder. Who is responsible for the actions of a depressed woman caused by drugs prescribed to her by a medical professional with dangerous side effects?
The big problem with Side Effects is that this core narrative is more than enough to make a feature film out of. Screenwriter Scott Z. Brown has great research and is presumably inspired by a litany of real world cases where SSRIs and other prescription medication (the female Viagra comes to mind) leading to reckless behavior.
The female Viagra comparison is especially apt as, like those women in the test studies, Emily regains her sex drive but also suffers from increasingly irrational behavior. Had the film been a 90 minute thriller about mental health care, treating depression, ignored side effects, and criminal culpability under the influence of prescription drugs, it could have been a masterpiece.
Unfortunately, that's just the first act of the film. The second act is an unending series of thriller cliches without the thrills. The psychiatrist receives mysterious packages that threaten his career; new players enter and leave without saying a word; lies are detected but not investigated because no one else believes them; the US legal system is used as a scapegoat for why progress cannot be made, etc. The third act is a whole new set of wild ideas that barely connect to anything that made the first act of Side Effects such an intriguing concept.
The over-written screenplay is a real shame because the production and artistic quality of Side Effects is high. The cast--especially Rooney Mara as Emily, Jude Law as Dr. Banks, Ann Dowd as Martin's mother, and Polly Draper as Emily's boss--is fantastic. They make really overwritten dialogue sound natural and believable. The timing of the film is great, with not a single editing beat out of place for this kind of story. The cinematography is strong, too, shifting in and out of focus through a yellow haze depending on the mindset of the characters.
Director Steven Soderbergh made a valiant effort to salvage this over-bloated screenplay into a crowd pleasing thriller. The production is slick enough to make people think they're watching a much better film than they are. You can't cover for a bad screenplay, especially in a thriller without any genuine surprises.
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