Herman Melville, who lived during the rise of patent medicine and the appealing vernacular of its advertisements, marked that “the great art of telling truth” is best practiced through telling lies. Human nature and the desire for preservation make us want to believe in such cures, especially digestible solutions that delay or assuage our route to mortality, and so we let ourselves be swindled by these promises on a daily basis. Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, “Side Effects,” boldly takes up the dangers of prescription medicine that our quick-fix culture chooses to ignore. However, the psychological thriller ends up failing to complete a single message as the film, too, is neurotically unbalanced, itself suffering a vicious case of multiple-personality disorder.
“Side Effects” spirals around a waifish Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a wife who begins seeing a therapist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) after her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum) gets imprisoned for insider trading. Upon his release, the couple agonizingly downgrades from their opulent lifestyle in Greenwich, Connecticut to a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Even when united with her husband after four years alone, Emily is more depressed than ever, attempting suicide on multiple occasions and acting out at high-class boating soirees a la Rose of “Titanic.” She begins seeing a new psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes her the latest antidepressant drug called Ablixa, which he is testing out on select patients as part of a contract study with a pharmaceutical giant. The side effects are split; when it’s good, Emily feels wonderful. She nestles out in the sun with Martin — their skins glisten and bodies move in slow motion, uncannily alike a sparkly-hazy antidepressant commercial. But when it’s bad, Ablixa makes Emily black out and stab her handsome husband to death in the kitchen before dinner.
Before the movie is even one-thirds through, the message seems at once to be clear: prescription medicine equates to death. But this public service announcement quickly gets abandoned, and the film shifts entirely to a legal mystery escapade regarding whether Emily can be deemed innocent because of her deranged reaction to Ablixa. While she awaits trial, Dr. Banks takes the reins as the protagonist. To ensure psychiatric plausibility, the writer and producer, Scott Z. Burns, partnered up with a Manhattan-based forensic psychologist, Dr. Sasha Bardey, who he met eight years ago working with the patients in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital while writing for the controversial television show, “Wonderland.” Bardey’s profession, which was central to the writing process and set design, is detecting which of the patients who claim psychotic mania, for instance, as the reasoning for a bank robbery, is manifesting symptoms as lies.
“The average psychiatrist in an office is naïve and should be naïve,” Bardey commented in an interview. “If you go to a doctor and say you have a pain here, he’s going to assume you’re telling the truth. In psychiatry, we don’t have x-rays. All we have is the interaction, and so that opens the door for patients who want to abuse the system.” He pointed out that this isn’t at all uncommon and can be seen in all corners of society, for example, among college students who frequently lie to their doctors in order to get prescriptions for amphetamines such as Adderall and Concerta.
Even with the help of a professional, the central plot develops so convolutedly, like an unbelievably gripping episode of “Law & Order,” that the film shows consciousness of being a spectacle. Soderbergh exacerbates the fictive twists of the narrative ad nauseam, so that the drama ends where it started, as a lie. Similar to patients who exploit their sympathetic doctor, the form of the movie is unforthcoming to its viewers, manipulating the plotline by withholding backstories without remorse. The cinematic experience of watching “Side Effects” feels perpetually in vain.
But as is the case with even the most scheming sociopaths, it is within the more subtle actions which orbit the elaborate plotline that glimpses of the truth can be found. Minor characters rattle off medication names from Wellbutrin to Zoloft as if reciting their grocery list. Dr. Bank’s wife swallows an anti-anxiety pill just before an interview, serving as a quick yet potent comment on how casual the consumption of stimulants has become. In a short, humorous scene, an unnamed patient of Bank’s instantaneously agrees to participate in the Ablixa study, because, honestly, who can refuse free drugs? The strongest aspect of Law’s performance ends up not being his fervent male drive to solve the mystery, but the less obvious portrayal of the opportunistic professional, someone who takes up multiple projects and unintentionally jeopardizes the livelihood of his patients. Rather than placing blame solely on the consumer, the doctor or the industry, “Side Effects” stresses that the American pill addiction is proliferated from all sides of the system.
“There are people who are running to a quick fix. It’s not for nothing that pharmaceutical companies are targeting individuals. You see ads for Celexa or Lunesta and they are directed to you, the consumer,” said Bardey. “They are not directed to the doctor as a great medication to consider for patients. There’s been a whole shift on how medication is sold and it is encouraging people to say, ‘I’ve been a little depressed. That person in that ad looks so happy. I want that now.’”
But besides the corporatization of pharmaceutical companies, the intimate approach used in patent medicine advertisements during Melville’s time has not changed much. The “I,” the medical merchant, may have slyly disappeared beneath the national commercials and transient subway ads, but the “you,” featured in even the earliest peddling of these bite-sized remedies, very much remains just as ambiguous, universal and vulnerable to this system of false confidence.
Contact Soojin at [email protected].