Film Threat Review: Side Effects

2013
Rated R
106 minutes

**

After a quarter century of film directing, Steven Soderbergh’s has chosen “Side Effects” as his alleged theatrical swan song. Teaming up once again with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“Contagion,” “The Informant!”), he shot and edited the film himself under assumed names. With that pedigree and level of control, I would surmise that Soderbergh made exactly the film he wanted to make. That’s why I’m so puzzled by the tonal shift that occurs right in the middle of what seemed to be a biting yet candid exploration of the anti-depressant industry. There’s giving your audience twists and turns and then there’s pulling the rug out from under them. At the end of the day, it’s Soderbergh’s prerogative. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

To be fair, the film’s opening is a sign of things to come. After an uncomfortably long wide shot that eventually zooms into an apartment window and finally finds a set of bloody footprints, I can’t say he didn’t warn me. But the film immediately jumps back in time three months to a story that is certainly dramatic, but not conspicuously noirish. Our protagonist is Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), a frail, beguiling girl who puts on a happy face to welcome her husband home on the day of his release from prison. Martin (Channing Tatum) served four years for insider trading and his little mistake cost his family the lush life to which they had become accustomed.

Emily’s crippling depression, instigated by her husband’s arrest, but probably exacerbated by a chemical imbalance, sours their happy reunion. After all, someone in their right mind wouldn’t intentionally drive their car directly into a wall. Having miraculously survived the accident with only a couple of bruises, Emily convinces the hospital shrink, Dr. Banks (Jude Law) that it was just a momentary loss of control and not likely to happen again. He lets her go under the condition that she visits him twice a week and agrees to start a course of anti-depressants.

Emily tries the gamut of available drugs, but experiences crippling side effects with each one. Finally, several influential parties convince Dr. Banks to prescribe a new drug called Ablixa, and everything turns around for Emily. But Ablixa does cause one, very inconvenient side effect: Sleep walking. It starts with preparing midnight snacks and ends with the aforementioned bloody footprints. She always awakes with no memory of what she did while asleep. So how can she be held responsible for something a drug made her do?

Here is the possibility for a compelling courtroom drama that examines every aspect of the anti-depressant industry. And for a while the film seems to be heading in that direction, introducing the perspective of the patients, the doctors and the pharmaceutical companies. It poses several difficult questions: Is tricking our brain into being happy really the best course of action? How much does the medical community really care about what happens to their patients? How can one mistake based on improper research ruin so many lives and careers while the companies that release the drug always emerge unscathed?

Dr. Banks experiences a brief existential crisis because he really believed in the drugs. He relies on them not only in his own practice but in his personal life as well. So when the drugs fail, his belief system fails. He can’t accept the idea that his entire philosophy might be wrong and that he could actually be responsible for some very bad things. Now that’s an interesting film.

But that’s not the film we get. Quite suddenly, “Side Effects” becomes a psychological thriller. Someone is lying! It might be the beautiful, but troubled girl who was taking the drugs (I wouldn’t normally consider the character’s appearance were it not actually mentioned as a motivation in the film). Or is it the career-driven psychiatrist who prescribed them? Or maybe it’s the sexy former doctor of the troubled girl who vouched for the drug? Dr. Victoria Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) sports black thick frames on her glasses with her hair in a tight bun while her constantly parted lips hint that the glasses could come off and the hair could tumble down around her shoulders at any minute (probably while her button-up shirt tears open in the heat of passion). In retrospect, Dr. Siebert is total foreshadowing for the film we end up with.

It’s difficult to get into detail about everything that goes wrong with “Side Effects” without massive spoilers. But trust me when I tell you that the mid-stream re-direction is jarring and disappointing if you were enjoying the story you thought Soderbergh was telling. The Emily of the first half is a riveting character. Lots of other actresses have portrayed depression and some have won awards for it. But those performances are generally over the top. Those women celebrate their crazy. Emily is trying desperately to get a hold of her depression. To fix herself so that she can get back to living her life. This is the more common face of depression than the one usually represented on celluloid. Mara’s performance never disappoints, but her character certainly does.

I won’t spoil whom she turns out to be, but I will say that it is nothing new in cinema and it’s not terribly flattering to women in general. Granted Soderbergh rarely lets any of his characters off the hook. He doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of humanity on the whole.

But he sure does love a twist. The story gleefully doles them out with rapid succession in the second half, making the plot and characters more convoluted, but less complex. I guess the biggest twist is that the film started out being something I liked and ended up being something I didn’t.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

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Film Threat Review: Warm Bodies

2013
Rated PG-13
97 minutes

**

Let’s face it: Zombies are wearing out their welcome. I’ve been a fan of the genre since childhood, but of late, I’ve needed more than just the presence of the shuffling, flesh-munching undead to enjoy a story. It also has to have a plot and meaningful dialog. The characters need to do things that make sense within the confines of their established universe. It needs to do something different.

I started watching “Warm Bodies” with a modicum of optimism. Nicholas Hoult (“About a Boy,” “Skins” [UK]), who plays the lovelorn undead poster boy, is a versatile young actor. The premise is intriguing and moderately original (aside from the human/monster star-crossed lovers aspect). But they didn’t execute it well. It wouldn’t have taken all that much. Just a few tweaks here and there. Maybe give the human characters some personality so they’re distinguishable from the zombies in ways apart from their melanin levels. An overhaul of the ending (and the foreshadowing thereof) wouldn’t hurt either, as its saccharine triteness cheapens the good stuff that came before it.

The film, written and directed by Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness,” “50/50”), comes from Isaac Marion’s popular YA novel. The opening scenes hint at a depth of character and narrative insight that, sadly, dissipates once the love story kicks in. Hoult plays R, a hoodied hipster zombie who spends his down time shuffling around his airport dwelling with other lost souls. His ennui-filled voice-over introduces the audience to the particulars of this post-apocalyptic universe as well as his struggles to find a meaningful place in it. He laments the amnesia that has pushed him into an existential crisis of sorts (“Who am I?…Why can’t I connect with people?”).

Though his thought process remains in tact, his speech function is reduced to groans and the occasional word, phrase or clause. I love the idea of an Emo kid trapped inside the body of an instinct-driven predator. But the story betrays its own originality by eventually succumbing to romantic tropes. Every step it takes toward that end pulls it further away from the seed of brilliance from whence it came.

R isn’t completely unique amongst his peers. He has found a kindred spirit in M (played by an outstanding Rob Corddry). The pals groan at one another over empty cocktail glasses at the airport bar. Occasionally, they organize field trips into the city in the hopes of bumping into humans who have dared to venture beyond their steel walls in search of supplies.

R’s heart literally skips when he first sees Julie (Teresa Palmer), their eyes locking across a crowded bloodbath. After chowing down on her boyfriend and pocketing the leftover brains, he is compelled not only to spare her life, but also to convince her to come back to his place under the guise of protection. She goes without protest partly because she’s stunned by his mercy but probably also because, even for a dead guy, he’s pretty easy on the eyes.

After a couple of days spent listening to records (“Better…ssssound”, he grunts pretentiously) and trying on sunglasses, R starts to change. This is partly due to the absorption of memories and emotions (but just the romantic ones and in chronological order) that occurs when a zombie consumes a human brain. R’s warm and fuzzy feelings for Julie are amplified by his secret snacking on boyfriend leftovers. But his increased speech abilities and sudden repossession of physical senses have more to do with burgeoning forbidden love than zombie superpowers. Not only is it shoddy writing to default to the notion that love conquers all, even death. It also devalues R’s remarkable conscientiousness as a morally conflicted zombie. Julie can’t love R until he changes who and what he is. What an affirmative message for young people!

The strained zombie dialog that increases in verbosity as the film wears on also feels a lot like cheating. This story could have been so much more emotionally resonant if the actors had to…I don’t know…act to convey their thoughts. (See the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode, “Hush” for an example on how to further a plot without dialog. In it, none of the characters could speak.) There are so many instances in which R could have used gestures, props (his airplane hipster pad is full of them) and facial expressions to communicate. I’m sure they still have Charades in the not-too-distant alternate future. Worse yet, much of what he says is exposition and often redundant. At least he never mentions anything about a Dark Passenger.

Contradictions and contrivances abound. Characters have instantaneous changes of heart, including M who takes about 5 seconds between scream-arguing that Julie is food to accepting her as part of the gang. R makes a joke about zombies being slow and then a couple of scenes later he and Julie must outrun them. Julie never seems all that broken up about the death of her boyfriend even after she learns that R was behind it. I guess they should get props for not using the “that was before I knew the real you!” plot device. But it still seems pretty convenient. Julie’s father, General “Pinot” Grigio (John Malkovich) is a narrow-minded, overprotective hardass. Yet, he doesn’t think twice about sending his only child into Zombieland on a “Pharmasalvage” mission. R is generally unwieldy but his motor skills are fine-tuned when the situation calls for it.

The situation calls for it during the war against the Bonies, a common enemy of both human and zombie. Bonies are zombies who have eaten their own flesh, thus stripping themselves of all humanity. Cool concept, right? Too bad they borrowed their skeleton effects from “Army of Darkness.”

It makes for an interesting story when the characters face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. You can still have a happy ending when those obstacles still exist but the characters have figured out a way to deal with them. “Warm Bodies” could have been the anti-“Twilight.” Instead, it’s just reanimated tripe.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).