crap i have watched recently #12

bottle of pillsVery many SPOILERS!  Serious warning!!!

Side Effects (2013):   Much has been made of this new Steven Soderbergh movie, particularly of the clever bait-and-switch tactics the filmmaker uses.  It starts out as a film about Emily (Rooney Mara), a young woman whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is about to get out of prison.  They’d been very, very nouveau riche but lost it all when he was convicted of insider trading.   Now she lives in a small apartment in NYC and works for an ad agency.  Things are strained between them and one day Emily attempts suicide by driving her car into a brick wall.  Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), the doctor who attends her in the emergency room, sends her home with a prescription; she becomes his patient and they try her on a number of different drugs.  After a series of medication failures, during which we see Dr. Banks agree to serve as a referring physician for a drug company clinical trial (to the tune of $50,000), and another suicide attempt,  Jonathan agrees to put Emily on a new drug, Ablixa.  Emily begins to have serious sleepwalking episodes and during one of them she stabs and kills her husband.   Emily cops an insanity plea, is acquitted of murder, and is sent for an extended stay at a state mental institution under Jonathan’s supervision.

At this point a movie about the victims of a pharmaceutical industry that markets dangerous drugs to unsuspecting people and enlists their doctors as paid advocates turns abruptly into a crime drama.  It quickly becomes obvious to Jonathan that Emily and her former psychiatrist Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones) are not what they seem to be and as he investigates what really happened his life collapses around him.   The press, his partners, and his patients blame him for what happened to Emily.  He is investigated by the medical ethics board.  He’s dropped from the drug study.  An incident from his past with another young female patient comes to light.  Someone mails his wife incriminating photos.  He begins to realize that Emily has fooled everyone.  After some clever sleuthing involving a placebo “truth drug” and even more clever manipulation of both Emily and Victoria, Jonathan exposes the conspiracy and gets his nice life back.  Victoria is arrested but Emily can’t be tried again.  So Jonathan punishes Emily with brutal medications and indefinite incarceration in the sort of massively horrendous government hospital that haunts our worst fears of mental illness.

I wouldn’t say it’s a bad movie but nothing in it really took hold for me.  The characters are not compelling.  Martin is the most likeable one of the bunch, a man who most likely thought there was nothing wrong with insider trading because everyone he knew was doing it.  He’s as sincere as a puppy when he promises Emily that he will get their life back.   Rooney Mara sleepwalks through the entire film.  Her face rarely changes expression.  I realize this was deliberate but it is difficult  to either connect with Emily emotionally or to care (or even be surprised) when she turns out not to be the sad little lost girl.  Jude Law expresses Jonathan’s increasing frustration and paranoia by not shaving.  Catherine Zeta-Jones is just creepy from the get-go.  At her very first moment on the screen I knew she was up to no good.   The film is also plagued with little things that don’t ring quite true.  These range from the minor to the more jarring.  On the minor side is Jonathan’s beer of choice.  Apparently we are to believe that a well-off British psychiatrist practicing in NYC drinks Rolling Rock.   More serious is Jonathan’s apparent unfamiliarity with FDA mandated “black box” warnings that have appeared on ALL antidepressants since 2004.  It is inconceivable that even a foreign psychiatrist would be unfamiliar with the package inserts that accompany every drug he prescribes.  It also seems unlikely that the physician that failed Emily so badly would be permitted to continue treating her in prison but perhaps that is not unusual.   Finally, the movie missed its opportunity to note that not only did Jonathan fail to see that Emily was not depressed, he failed to see her real pathology.  She’s a sociopath.

Although I am tempted to bemoan the back-handed slap at lesbians, the winking acknowledgement that insider trading isn’t a real crime, or the half-hearted exposé of pharmaceutical company research and marketing practices, I’ll just focus on the disappointing depiction of people with mental illnesses since that is relevant to my interests.   At first the movie really does seem like it’s aimed squarely at drug company perfidy.  Zoloft, Effexor, Depakote, and Thorazine are all mentioned by name and not kindly; the run through of side effects is impressive (hair loss, loss of libido, tardive dyskinesia, nausea, emotional dampening, sleepwalking, etc.).   The marvelous new drug turns out to have some very nasty side effects which were known to everyone but the patients and Jonathan.   The drug companies conduct medication trials using doctors as go-betweens.  Patients are offered free medication if they participate; doctors get bonuses for every patient they sign.  There is a lot of money involved.  Actual therapy is depicted in the film but the prescription of drugs is a given; the option of not taking anything is never mentioned.   Doctors blithely tell patients that the possibility of severe side effects is an acceptable risk for a chance to get well.   They just as blithely prescribe more drugs to counter the effects of the other drugs.  Emily is meant to be seen as a victim of all this, a naif lost in the woods of marketing and her well-meaning friends, all of whom have a miracle drug that helped them through their own rough patches.  We are disgusted by the ease with which drug companies convince desperate people to try new drugs and the huge amounts of money doctors make by advocating for them.  We are angry when the police officers and district attorney laugh at the silly shrink who proposes that Emily’s medication makes her not responsible for her actions.   We are appalled when we realize that everyone Emily knows is taking something for depression.  We share Jonathan’s dismay as he discovers, via the internet, that OMG those drugs are all kinds of scary.  Who knew?  (Srsly, worst psychiatrist EVER.)

And then it all gets thrown over.   Emily is a faker, something that is almost always suspected of the mentally ill.  Her psychiatrist is easy to manipulate because obviously the symptoms are so easy to fake.  I have no love for psychiatrists in general but in this film they really get short shrift.  Jonathan is incompetent.  Victoria is unethical.  Jonathan’s partners are greedy and selfish; one of them is literally in hysterics as she contemplates the negative press attention Jonathan has brought upon the practice.  Jonathan’s other patients are portrayed as goofy, paranoid, moderately anxious losers who are probably just attention seekers.  There is a vague and lingering impression that all those friends that take antidepressants are merely the “worried well”, including the woman who describes her reaction to finding a lump in her breast and claims Effexor helped her get past the despair.   In essence the take home message ends up being that people with depression aren’t seriously ill and those who are are probably liars who will abuse the insanity defense.

The twist in this film isn’t really the so-called “who-dunnit”  (it is pretty damn obvious who did it), it’s the change in our  own perceptions.  When we first see poor Emily in the prison mental hospital, with all its vast impersonality, we fear for her and suffer with her.  We watch her run through one drug after another and nod in sympathy.  We feel her frustration as she tries to express her inexpressible pain.  We forgive her for what happened to Martin.  By the end of the film, however, we can’t wait for the nurse to load up that syringe and sedate the hell out of that murdering, lying bitch.  We bathe in schadenfreude as Dr. Banks uses his prescription pad to condemn Emily to a life of pharmaceutical oblivion.  We view as karmic justice the terror in her face as he enumerates the horrific side effects she will experience.  We are suddenly faced with how easily these drugs can be used to destroy even when they work as intended.  We find ourselves rooting for the doctor who effectively kills a patient with the same medicines many of us take every day.

It’s not a very thrilling thriller nor is the denouement unexpected.  But from start to finish this movie is an indictment of the mental health industry and our complicity in taking whatever they want to sell us.  It’s really too bad that it’s not a better film.

Score:  Meh

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~ by gun street girl on February 19, 2013.

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