10 March 2013

Very Bad Pharma

After the tension-establishing opening scene of Steven Soderbergh's new movie, it felt as though Side Effects was going to be another Contagion, Soderbergh's antepenultimate film, in that it was shaping up to be a dispassionate but scientifically accurate depiction of a particular medical issue. In the case of Side Effects, this meant portraying bad behaviour at all levels within the US pharmaceutical industry. Drug companies put out irresponsible actors and take doctors out for lunch. Doctors accept payment from these companies for "consulting" work. Everyone is tired and overworked. Mistakes sometimes happen. It's an interesting and important topic, but one that may work better in a Ben Goldacre invective than in a movie.

Fortunately, about halfway through the film, a series of twists move the film away from this clinical, matter-of-fact approach, finally making it earn its "psychological thriller" categorisation. The film started to drag a little towards the end of the first half—I wasn't in need of a course in bad pharma 101—but it really picked up in the second half. It portrays a world where there are few heroes and few who act altruistically. The performances by Rooney Mara as a young woman suffering from depression, and Jude Law as her psychiatrist, were complex and interesting, and overall, Side Effects is an intelligent, engaging and thought-provoking film. It's hard to write much more about Side Effects without giving too much; I have tried not to spoil the film completely, but if you plan to watch it, you'll enjoy it more if you read no further.

As the film opens, we see a pristine New York apartment sullied by large splatters of blood. Flashing back to three months earlier, Emily (Mara) is waiting for her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to be released from prison. He has been serving a four-year sentence for insider trading and Emily hasn't taken it well. She knows she is supposed to be happy about his return but she can't quite shake the "poisonous cloud" from her mind. She leaves work one day and very coolly drives her car at full speed into a wall. Later, in hospital, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Law) suggests she stay in hospital for a while to recover, but Emily insists on being released, promising she will come to see him several times a week.

After consulting with her previous shrink Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Dr Banks prescribes a series of antidepressants for Emily, all of which have pretty nasty side effects. Emily mentions that her friend recommended a new drug called Ablixa, which is being advertised heavily and which happens to be made by the company for whom Banks is a "medical consultant." Initially, Ablixa makes Emily feel great, but then a whole load of other side effects kick in, most troublingly her sleep walking, or, sometimes, sleep cooking. Meanwhile Martin tries to rehabilitate his life. He is thinking of setting up a new financial services company with someone he met in prison, but his attention is distracted by his wife's downward spiral. And Dr Banks isn't without problems of his own. His wife, a former investment banker, has been made redundant and they are struggling to pay her son's private school fees (hence the need for him to take on the pharma consulting on top of his heavy case load).

Then, something terrible happens. Something that changes the course of the whole movie. Questions of guilt and blame come up. If a person does something while on medication, do you blame the person, the drug or the doctor who prescribed it? As we discover more about the whole murky situation, our empathy shifts rapidly among the characters, and it remains uncertain until the end exactly which characters are the worst of a bad bunch, although as the credits begin to roll, we wonder whether we can trust any of them, and who, if anyone, is really crazy. After all, "we all go a little mad sometimes."

Side Effects is slick and stylish, complex and compelling. Zeta-Jones, and her ├╝ber-throaty accent, may have been the weak link in a generally strong cast, but this didn't detract from a well-made, enjoyable movie. I've come to expect no less from Soderbergh's movies and I think it would be a great shame if this really does end up being his last. If you are interested in finding out more about the murkiness of the pharmaceutical industry, you may like Ben Goldacre's latest book Bad Pharma; I found it quite dry, especially compared to Bad Science, but it is also very informative.

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