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Movie Review: Side Effects may include frustration, followed by pleasant surprise

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Posted by: Joe Donato

Can you fault a film for intentionally sucking for its entire first act? Side Effects opens with a relationship that isn’t quite right, even though it seems like it should be. The girl, Emily (Rooney Mara), is having trouble finding anything to be happy about and starts taking anti-depressants to fight her suicidal urges. It just goes to show that if you need a troubled leading lady, call up one of the girls with the dragon tattoos.

It’s the message surrounding the anti-depressants that’s worrisome. The film attacks the drugs with the subtlety of a car hitting a brick wall. It is to mood-altering pharmaceuticals what Crash was to racism. The blunt criticism does little to artistically address an important issue. Our nation’s love affair with Prozac is worth discussion, but this isn’t the way to handle it at all.

Side Effects image

What’s worse is that there is artistry to every shot and every performance. Much of the film is muted like the first half of a drug commercial. Rooney Mara delivers a character you can’t help feeling bad for. There’s a moment-to-moment sense that everything is off-kilter, much like the psychological state of a depressed person. But then there’s the blatant denouncement of the drugs and ham-fisted dialogue that accompanies it.

It’s infuriatingly stupid. Enough so that when a couple walked out of the theater 30 minutes in, I didn’t really blame them. But that fury and frustration has a side effect itself. When the film reveals its true nature, you don’t see it coming.

Side Effects image

Whether it’s an intentional ploy or an example of schizophrenic writing is debatable. Either way, I was eventually blindsided by a much more compelling movie. The telltale signs of quality in the cinematography early on are a tip-off that the creators behind Side Effects are smarter than they let on. The question is whether the challenge of the first act is worth what comes next.

The underrated thriller House at the End of the Street played a similar card. Billed as a horror film, presented as a vapid story of teen angst, and then finally breaking into a twisty thriller, it was easy to underestimate. The fact that it subverted expectations seemed like a key component of the film. Here, though, I have to wonder if angering the audience is worth the payoff.

Side Effects

Either way, what eventually follows is compelling and unexpected. To say any more would be a disservice. Just know that the end product is far more interesting than the blunt commentary implies.

Again, I have to ask: can you fault a film for intentionally sucking for its entire first act? I say it depends on how successfully you subvert expectation and how important that initial subterfuge feels. With Side Effects, it wouldn’t be the same film without that first act, but I can’t help feeling that it may have been a better one.


star rating 3 and a half

Tags: Movies, Side Effects

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