Gazing upon its slick, elegantly-constructed surface, Side Effects looks every bit the taut psychological thriller it sells itself to be.
And for the most part the substance of the movie, which is the final directorial effort of Steven Soderbergh if you take his recent oft-stated declarations that he is done with movie making as gospel truth, does match its Vogue-beautiful exterior.
With a script by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, Contagion) it spends much of the first part of the movie revelling in its clipped scenes that last no longer than is absolutely necessary, its emotionally austere characters who almost universally appear to be off their meds (and that includes the “hero” of the story, Dr. Jonathan Banks played by Jude Law) and suffering for it, and its subdued, muted visuals that threaten to sink, without warning, into what John Bunyan referred to in Pilgrims Progress as a “slough of despond”.
And to the extent that it is grim tale of what is lost when life doesn’t play by the half-glass-full rules of the shiny, ever-upward American Dream, this approach is entirely warranted, it is the perfect matching of artistic vision with a soberingly-real cautionary tale of drugging your way to a promised fairytale existence.
But therein lies part of the problem with this largely well-executed movie.
It is so grimly austere that you begin to wonder if coming to watch it was such a good idea.
It wasn’t that I baulk at blisteringly real depictions of the hopelessness of lives gone wrong; it is simply that the recounting of how Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin (Channing Tatum) came to be in the fallen place they are, and in Emily’s case at least, in need of the sort of psychiatric care provided first by Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and then Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is told with such ruthless efficiency that it was as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room …
… and I was having trouble breathing, and wondering, here and there, if I was going to need one of the many antidepressant drugs whose names were thrown around like some sort of get-well-soon mantra throughout the film.
There is no doubt Emily Taylor is in a bad place when we meet her.
Struggling with debilitating depression, and coping with a busy job in Manhattan and regular lengthy trips to see her disgraced husband, Martin, in jail for insider trading – he is arrested in front all their A-list friends at the end of a summery high tea in the country to make matters worse – she is a woman on the edge.
We see her attempt suicide by driving into a parking garage wall and stand far too close to a subway platform, all too aware she is in the grip of a great melancholic sadness that she valiantly tries to hide when her husband is released from jail after his four year sentence runs its courses.
But it isn’t long before the facade drops and she is forced into care again with the ambitious, hard-working Jonathan who, in partner with two similarly career-minded colleagues at their upmarket practice, and with the world seemingly at his well-heeled feet, does his best to get Emily out of the dark emotional abyss into which she has fallen.
And for a while he succeeds, with Emily reacting well to the brand new drug Ablixa that he places her on – this is after adverse reactions to some existing drugs which send Emily into a sleepwalking, sexless stupor much of the time – and seemingly on the path to recovery.
That she, and the lives of everyone she knows, don’t stay on this ever-upward trajectory is almost a foregone conclusion and it is at the point that all the wheels falls off that Side Effects belatedly comes alive, roused from its drugged storytelling haze by twists and turns aplenty (which I will, of course, leave you to discover for yourself).
It is a thrilling, engaging ride for the most part, as the many surprises and secrets hidden beneath its slickly-coiffed facade are revealed one after the other in sometimes almost-melodramatic fashion.
It is a Soderbergh vehicle after all, and displays all the intelligence, sophistication and understated elegance you expect from his finely-wrought films.
That it is not one of his best efforts, weighed down at times by a sense of its own beauty and importance, and by a emotional palette so grey it is hard to feel much connection to any of the characters, no matter how tragic their circumstances, hardly seems to matter.
A slight Soderbergh misstep is many other directors’ masterpiece, and while it does play out like a half-hearted morality play at times about the evils of medication by capitalism, replete with camp flourishes, and implausible constructs with characters who almost seem to deserve what is handed out to them, it is nonetheless a highly engaging thriller that defies you to look away, and a sufficiently rewarding payoff that you don’t feel as if the time invested has been in vain.
Just don’t go expecting it to be the panacea for all your movie going ills.