Saturday, June 22, 2013

Review: Side Effects

Readers of my previous reviews may have noticed how often I comment, usually unhappily, on a film's structure. I'm not sure why this is so often a focal point for me. Maybe it's because most ineffective movies fail in predictable and routine ways, so it stands out more when a film suffers from a bizarre, disjointed, and/or lopsided plot structure.

The other side of that view is just as valid: that effective movies with unusual structure get noticed for it. Pulp Fiction is an obvious example, and Side Effects is too, but not in the same way. Not only does Side Effects have structural weirdness of a different flavor (its chronology is linear), but the weirdness it has exists for a very good reason, as opposed to Pulp Fiction's showier, more indulgent structure.

The story follows Rooney Mara as she gets mental health treatment from Jude Law, but after the film's turning point (foreshadowed in the opening shots), the story follows Law much more. I'd heard that audiences might be put off by the fact that Side Effects sort of switches gears halfway through, but to me there's no other way this tight, keep-you-guessing drama could have worked. At times I felt like I was watching an abnormally artful episode of the similarly bifurcated Law & Order.

I'm a relative Soderbergh noob, but I've seen enough of his work by now to hope his retirement isn't permanent. Apart from the story working so well despite taking obvious narrative risks, he got great performances out of his leads. There's something satisfying about a nice, serious, adult drama requiring only a little suspension of disbelief—one in which the subtlety of the acting contributes to the sense that "I have no freakin' clue how this thing's gonna end." My hunch was that it'd have a deeply dark ending, and while I successfully guessed some elements of the mystery's resolution (e.g. the relationship between Channing Tatum's character and Mara's), the tone of the ending surprised me.

Another expectation I had, which I'm glad I was wrong about, was that Side Effects would get too soapboxy about the whole "Big Pharma sucks" angle. I mean, obviously, yes, Big Pharma sucks. But while the film is unflinching in its examination of it—and I really enjoyed the sequences shot in an obvious imitation of TV drug ad style—the social commentary remains a secondary matter.

I recommend Side Effects with only one reservation: you should probably skip it if you can't take movies that shine a piercing light on the disquieting aspects of contemporary society. Me, I can't get enough of that stuff. In fact, what I really want to see now is a grimly realistic screen adaptation/re-imagining of Huxley's Brave New World.

Star Score: 4 out of 5

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