Paying the piper
No less than seven people negotiate the slippery slope of “Side Effects,” a well-oiled thriller that drops its clues like juicy tidbits of gossip. As intriguing as its puzzle is, the film then fits its pieces together using a flyby exposition that’s easily missed.
Dr. Jonathan Banks, played by Jude Law, is a psychiatrist persuaded to champion a new antidepressant drug by its promise to help difficult patients, and by a lucrative deal from its manufacturer.
Banks is professionally competent, though somewhat naïve when he meets Emily Taylor, a depressed young woman. Emily, played with highly coiled energy courtesy of Rooney Mara, contributes to Dr. Banks’ growing belief that he’s only as useful as his menu of prescription drugs.
Emily’s current crisis occurs after her marriage to a former hedge fund trader (Channing Tatum) becomes strained. Following her suicide attempt, Emily lands in the emergency room where she is seen by Banks, and from there becomes his outpatient. To better understand Emily’s condition, Banks meets with her past shrink, the unsettling Dr. Victoria Siebert (a bespectacled Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Banks, struggling to keep the good life afloat in Manhattan for himself and his newly unemployed wife, decides to accept a lucrative offer from the makers of Ablixa, to participate in a study of the antidepressant. In short order, he places Emily, along with several other patients, on the drug.
Initially, it seems the film intends to address the drug campaigns leading physicians to prescribe antidepressants for more than 1-in-10 Americans over the age of 12. But this commentary ends almost before it begins.
Twisting and turning, the plot first puts Banks through his paces, before Banks enacts a revenge scheme that turns his character inside-out. Oddly, the film all but ignores how Banks might be changed by subverting the Hippocratic oath he has demonstrated his belief in.
By failing to recognize the quandary he has made for himself, the story becomes a sort of intellectual revenge fantasy.
These schemes should be fun, but the film’s awkward transition from set-up to delivering justice, further tears down our faith in an already flawed medical system involving pharmaceutical houses, physicians and insurance companies.
The film escapes a lingering death because Law and Mara’s characterizations transcend the screenplay, and because the stylish cinematography resonates with feeling.
Despite its flaws, “Side Effects” cleverly questions the values that permeate our culture.
Exactly when was it that we came to believe we are entitled to have whatever we want without the stress of the pursuit or the disappointments that life has in store?
That’s a tough question to answer, but one way or another, everything has a price.