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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 Side Effects


Directed by Steven Soderbergh (2013)

Side Effects begins and ends with almost identical shots of buildings, their blankly staring windows punched out like the holes in old-fashioned computer cards, the lives behind lived in individual isolation amid the multitude. One is a New York apartment block, the other a psychiatric hospital.

Both are home, at different times, to Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), young, pretty and in despair. Following a suicide attempt her psychiatrist, the polite and kindly Englishman Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), prescribes anti-depressants of various kinds, playing a drug lottery to find the winning ticket that will make her happy.

His own drug of choice is Red Bull, which keeps him buzzing through his busy day, and for his wife beta-blockers, smuggled into her palm to calm the pre-job interview nerves. ďEveryone takes them,Ē he assures her, while behind the scenes Big Pharma bankrolls the game.

This drugs casino is wide open to corruption, mirroring the official economy. Emilyís hubby Martin (Channing Tatum) is just out of nick after being caught insider-trading. Itís not the crime but being caught thatís the real problem. Emilyís fall from the high life he provided is the thing thatís screwed her up.

The story spins on a sudden, shocking scene that results from her taking an experimental new medication called Ablixa, which comes with rather nasty side effects. Dr Banks is in trouble. Disowned by his peers he turns dishevelled detective and the plot twists pleasingly all the way to the asylum.

The performances are pleasing, too. Mara does a nice line in frail waif with a sliver of steel, while Law segues smoothly from compassion to desperate self-defence before finally, disturbingly, reasserting the power of his professional status. His diagnosis ultimately determines who is mad and who is sane, who is allowed to be in the game and who must be locked away.

And then thereís bespectacled Catherine Zeta-Jones manipulating menacingly, if a little one-dimensionally, as the psychiatrist Emily can no longer afford.

What they all have in common is the way their moments of solidarity dissolve into pure self-interest. Community is atomised into competing individuals, ruthless in their ambition to save themselves at the expense of everyone else.

As Side Effects invites us to wonder who is really sane and who is not, in the end it becomes clear that, in the land of the monad, such categories are irrelevant. Because itís the whole world thatís gone mad.

March 28, 2013

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