I’m still not sure how I feel about Side Effects. The thriller part of it was pretty engrossing and well done, though the drama half had its fair share of issues, into which I will now delve. (Warning: Spoilerific review below.)
First, let’s discuss the quality of the acting. I thought Jude Law and Rooney Mara were perfect with the latter falling off toward the end, but I’ll get to that. Channing Tatum is pretty much exactly what you would expect, and Catherine Zeta-Jones was good as always, nothing to write home to Mother about save for the fact that her publicized battles with bipolar disorder gave me the distinct impression that she was more qualified for her role than anyone else in the film.
Okay, so - what was the point of Martin (Tatum) being in jail? Was it to spawn Emily’s (Mara) depression? If so, then sure, life events can certainly trigger depression, but the type of depression that Emily suffered from (which was hinted in passing to have existed before her husband’s arrest) seems to be of the more frustrating kind - the kind that exists even when life seems normal on the outside.
The film flip-flopped on this concept, since Emily seems to be relapsing back into what is hinted to be long-term depression at the party on the boat, yet she explains the origin of her depression to Dr. Banks (Law) as beginning with the arrest of her husband and realizing that all of her problems began and ended with him. Though, the film then completely craps on this concept by the end when Emily reveals that she, with the help of her lover doctor (Jones), was faking it to make her murder of Martin more believable.
The filmmakers could have really been onto something here. They could have explored the concept of “Big Pharma” and the millions it makes off of people who never feel any better, no matter which drugs they’re on (a direction they seemed to be headed for in the beginning). They could have also tackled the stigma against mental illness and how everyone around Emily claims that they’ve “been there, too,” yet there’s still a lack of acceptance to the point where everyone makes their confessions in quiet voices.
But no, depression is used as nothing more here than as a tool for some broad to use in order to kill her husband and get rich, along with her lover doctor who’s peddling the drug that “made her do it” and teaching her how to “act sad” to be more convincing.
It was when Emily confessed that Mara’s acting went from great to disappointing. Despite the fact that Emily’s not as depressed as she led us to believe and is “smiling” at the end, she seems like she’s already under the effects of the Thorazine with which she’ll eventually be plied. Her mood never changes, even after the “big reveal.”
The first time in the film that Emily is finally on drugs is in the closing scene, and the drugs are used as a form of punishment for a murderer. Not the best note to go out on if you want to tackle the stigma, though that never seemed to be the intention.
As was the intention, I was duped by this film and rather disappointed. I was impressed with how well Mara conveyed the realism of a panic attack, coupled with the desperate hopelessness that one can feel while suffering from a mental illness and the lack of understanding from those around her (as Martin says in passing, “it’s the culture”), only for Emily to turn out to be nothing more than a convincing actress. To sum up, the acting was good and the story was okay, despite its holes, but the exploitation of drugs and depression in this film got under my skin.