Thursday, February 14, 2013

Side Effects and Identity Thief

          Liar’s Poker, with Few Cards on the Table

                      Review by Ken Burke                Side Effects

If this is Soderbergh’s last film, he’s gone out on top with a terrific thriller about duplicity in the anti-depressant marketplace but not the scandal that you’re led to expect.

                                                                                 Identity Thief

You can always count on Jason Bateman to be perpetually perplexed and Melissa McCarthy for effective gross-out humor, but there’s not much else happening here.

I may be posting this review on Valentine’s Day but there’s not a lot of love lost among the protagonists in Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects and Seth Gordon‘s Identity Thief, although Sandy Patterson’s (Jason Bateman) spouse, Trish (Amanda Peet), does stick by him through thick (no pun intended, as we’ll discuss later) and thin in the latter one, unlike Dr. Jonathan Banks’ (Jude Law) wife, Deirdre (Vinessa Shaw), in the former who’s overwhelmed by the lies hurled at her husband, just as so many others are lied to in both of these tales of massive deception (for those regular readers who wonder what wacky musical diversions I’ll come up with, I probably should just jump you right now to Fleetwood Mac’s “Sweet Little Lies” [from the 1987 album Tango In the Night] which you can find at
tV8 because you’re not going to get any sweet lies in these filmic experiences, just a lot of very cruel manipulations, some of which you’re expected to laugh at, so I offer you instead a musical taste of the Macs' more pleasantly-intended allusions to falsehoods before we get down to the rotten cinematic business at hand).  The lies in Side Effects are a bit more insidious, only in that the filmmakers cleverly lie to us just as the characters lie to each other but that just adds to the dramatic pleasure of the jarringly-unfolding story as Soderbergh sets us up for one narrative—seemingly about the social responsibilities held by mental-health professionals when they don’t take adequate precautions with the medications they so freely prescribe—and then steers us sideways into another set of events intended to do nothing more than entertain us with the complex villainy and its come-uppance that we’d never expect just from the tantalizing-but-intentionally-misleading previews.  While regular readers of these blog reviews should know by now to expect spoilers all the time due to the down-time reality of my viewing vs. my writing opportunities, I’ll offer a more blatant alert with Side Effects because it’s such a delightful pleasure to experience that I don’t want to ruin the opportunity for you if you haven’t seen the film yet.  As so many others have already noted, Hitchcock would have been proud of how this is constructed, so if you’re intending to see it I’d recommend that you drop on down below to Identity Thief because the only things you’ll see there that aren’t already revealed to you in the trailer aren’t anything to be shocked about due to prior revelation.  But unlike Gordon’s overdone collage of stock physical gags and a desperate need for some editing shears, Soderbergh has presented us with what may be his last film after having now done 26 features, 1 documentary, and several shorts/segments of longer works (if he indeed shifts his attention to other forms of visual media expression, as he has indicated is his choice) and, if so, it’s a doozy of a great twisted tale in which a clever script, top-notch acting, and commanding direction already make this into what will surely be among the best film offerings of 2013.

Given the frequent comparisons and praise for the successful allusions to a masterful Hitchcock thriller in Side Effects, it’s no surprise that we begin with an exterior shot of a large apartment building in what we later learn is Manhattan, a start not unlike Hitchcock’s Rope, another film in which a dastardly deed has occurred out of our sight in one of the enclosed dwellings of that prominent island borough.  Immediately the shot is in motion as we zoom in (or it could have been an actual crane shot; I’d have to see it again to notice if the perspective actually changes as we get closer to our destination) through the window of one of the apartments, just as we are first introduced to Marion Crane’s “immoral character” as we similarly move into a high-rise hotel window in Phoenix in Hitch’s Psycho to catch her in the act of a lunch-time tryst with her lover.  However, once we enter the Side Effects dwelling of Martin and Emily Taylor (Channing Tatum, Rooney Mara) we see no violence or sex, just the residue of something likely related to at least one of these human passions as the camera glides through the rooms revealing a trail of blood.  With that introduction in place, a graphic insert alerts us to a “3 Months Earlier” flashback in which we meet Emily and Martin, with her already in a state of discomfort as he’s about to be released from a jail term for insider trading, whereupon he seems primed to strike it rich again and she seemingly responds by driving her car into the wall of a parking garage.  We’re led to assume that she’s troubled by his easily-recidivistic attitude, which leads to her trip to a mental hospital where she connects with Dr. Banks who tries to help overcome her depression with various drugs, to which she has negative reactions making her socially unfit for relationships or work, until they begin to get better results with a new anti-depressant, Ablixa, recommended by her former therapist, the sharply-dressed and clinically-efficient Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones).  Emily shows improvement but also weird reactions, yet begs to stay on the med because overall it’s returned her to a state of passionate reactions, including some hot sex with her hunky husband.  He’s not long for the benefits of her reanimation (seriously, in her worst states she could easily fall in with the zombies in Jonathan Levine’s current Warm Bodies [my review in our blog posting of Feb. 8, 2013]), though, because he comes home one day to find her literally in a trance before she brutally stabs him to death, hence the previously-unexplained blood in the opening scene.  With all of this set-up the film seems like it’s taken us into territory previously explored by Soderbergh with The Informant! (2009, in which Matt Damon, as a very unstable excuse for a hero, sets out to take on the abuses of the agri-business industry) but this time dealing with prescription drugs and their notorious but often-underreported side effects (or, if noted, buried in very small print on a large info sheet or whisked by quickly via voiceovers in radio and TV ads) and whether the responsibility for Martin’s death lies with disturbed Emily or with her careless counselor who allows her to maintain her use of a potentially-lethal additive which then leads to calamity.  Suddenly, though, the social-responsibility drama that we’ve been led to believe we’re witnessing unravels even further for both Dr. Banks and us.  Assuming that one more Spoiler Alert warning is all that’s needed to provide me with legal immunity from your death threats after I reveal Soderbergh’s secrets, we’ll proceed to the really meaty part of this fascinating film, which clearly was intended to have us raving for curtain calls, even if our talented Mr. Soderbergh (to reference another Damon film, The Talented Mr. Ripley [Anthony Minghella, 1999], but one that also featured Jude Law) is serious about not needing any more cinematic encores.

Once Dr. Banks’ life starts falling apart as the result of being a bit too aggressive in trying to defend himself against the accusations that are growing against him, leading to him and his patients being dropped from a well-paid clinical study for another anti-depressant, Delatrix, after its sales skyrocket following the rapid demise of Ablixa after Emily’s well-publicized controversial case; his partners growing increasingly distrustful of his value to their firm because of the increasingly negative publicity implicating him as the real reason for Emily’s homicidal act (there were other bad reactions to Ablixa that he’s chastised for not knowing about); and his wife’s leaving him because she’s sent anonymous photos that imply an affair between him and Emily, Jonathan suddenly goes on the offensive and the whole assumption of drug-abuse expose goes back out the window through which we entered Side Effects.  Some good investigation tactics on Jonathan’s part eventually reveal that Emily was a complete fake all along who’d learned to feign depression symptoms (and never had any reaction to Ablixa) so that she’d have an alibi for killing Martin, an obstacle to Emily’s future who needed to be gotten rid of, after which she would suddenly show improvement, have her charges dismissed as temporary insanity, and then resume her torrid affair with Victoria (Wow!  Lisbeth Salander [The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher, 2011] and Velma Kelly [Chicago, Rob Marshall, 2002] as lesbians!  Who knew?) as they'd live in luxury from the monetary rip-offs that the good Dr. Siebert was raking in with the tricks (of another kind) taught to her by Emily, a good learner from Martin’s toxic tactics.  If that isn’t enough of a whirlwind of unexpected-but-deliriously-effective plot twists, then we have the counterattack from Jonathan who manages to undermine Emily’s confidence in Victoria enough to convince her to return to their hot couch in Boston but wearing a wire to capture enough evidence to relocate “Dr. Demento’s” practice straight to federal prison.  However, he also suddenly returns Emily to her psych ward on an inner island of NYC, with some additional confinement through a mandatory prescription for Thorazine to keep her semi-comatose, through some further clever manipulations on his part.  Of course, Soderbergh doesn’t want to leave us too resolved, so as we see Emily for the last time she says she’s getting better (either because she’s delusional or is somehow resisting her cognitive confinement in a slow recovery back to the point of once again menacing Dr. Banks, just to keep us guessing until Soderbergh might surface at the movies again and let us know what’s happening with our crafty mental patient).  It all ends with a nice bookend shot as we zoom (or truck, depending on whether the camera’s on a crane or stationary) back out to show the hospital in relation to Manhattan, not only bookending the opening shot but giving possibly a brief allusion to Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane (it’s been too long since I had an occasion to reference it, so indulge me) where we begin with a tight shot on a “No Trespassing Sign,” then pan up to the entrance to Xanadu, allowing the camera to lead us into the Kane compound (presented lovingly for your edification at, all the way through Charlie’s death), matched at the end with another pan shot from the great gate down to the sign again (at
153509D64E6EA5&feature=results_video, including the revelation of “Rosebud,” followed by black smoke, referencing the death of a Pope, which they won’t be burning at the Vatican this spring but they will have to soon get ready for a new burst of white smoke when the successor to Benedict XVI is chosen), implying that whatever we wanted to find out about the depth meaning of “Rosebud” was really none of our business and wouldn’t be revealed through second-hand accounts anyway, just as we really don’t know the full extent of Emily’s craftily-dangerous persona nor does she really want us to so we’d better just fly away and leave her alone before she decides to involve us in her next nefarious scheme.

Maybe Soderbergh just wants to be left alone for awhile as well after a fantastically successful career in the midst of the Hollywood jungle with a wide variety of films, from the provocative indie-type acts of Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) and Full Frontal (2002) to respected high-art fare such as Traffic (2000, snagging a Best Director Oscar) and his remake of the modern Russian classic Solaris (2002) to warmly-embraced mainstream movies such as another socially-conscious docudrama with Erin Brockovich (2000), some sensitive sensuality in Magic Mike (2012), and the Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen (2001, 2004, 2007) master classes in what some call Big Caper theft movies.  If so, he’s gone out with a rousing finale in Side Effects, a seemingly-serious expose of our society’s over-indulgence in quick-fix prescription drugs that morphs into a well-done embrace of an old-time intrigue-thriller that’s captivating from start to finish.  If we must say goodbye, Mr. Ubiquitous Talent, at least you’ve left us with something well worth remembering at the end of your career, which I’ll heretically offer wasn’t fully the case with the frequently-referenced-to-Side Effects “Master of Suspense,” Mr. Hitchcock, whose swan song, Family Plot (1976) was well made and fun to watch as part of a legendary career (first feature directed in 1925) but was nowhere near as impactful as Side Effects as a possible final cinematic statement.  Not to sound ageist on you, especially given my own advancing years, but after a long time behind the camera at age 80 I think that Sir Alfred was beginning to reach the end of his Rope (1948, quite a fascinating quasi-theatrical, seemingly real-time experiment in narrative cinema that I highly recommend for viewing despite its jingoistic surface message of universal dignity and homophobic sub-surface, the latter at least imported from the original 1929 play, which I haven't seen but have read about) whereas Soderbergh has chosen to go out at the top of his game with Side Effects, a marvelous testimony to his talents as a film director.  We can only hope his paintings and other media explorations prove to be so successful.

On the other hand, we have Identity Thief in which poor-schnook Sandy Patterson has his identity stolen because he is too naïve in receiving a call from someone seemingly at his credit card company, leading to his casual divulging of private information which soon leads to daffy Diana not only manufacturing an identity that parallels his via a fake driver’s license and credit cards but the ruination of Sandy’s credit rating, his employment, and even his standing with the local Denver law enforcement unless he’s willing to travel to Florida to haul the fake “Sandy” (poor guy was cursed with a unisex name which Diana seemingly located randomly on the Internet as she sought her latest rip-off victim) out West for atonement.  This shallow but financially-successful movie (about $34 ½ million in its opening weekend, leaving Side Effects in the dust at #3 but with only a bit over $9 million) plays somewhat on Bateman’s relatable charms as a decent guy who tries to make the right choices while everything around him is falling apart but mostly on Melissa McCarthy’s box-office gold presence as an obnoxious, beyond-overly-self-confident presence who can be counted on for hilarious, ribald physical comedy that challenges every stereotype of petite women delivering refined gags.  Sarah Silverman may have a potty mouth in her satirical comedy career but McCarthy has a potty body that she’s quite willing to use to exaggerated effect that would have pleased Mack Sennett in his pioneering days over a century ago, establishing the Hollywood tradition of slapstick comedy done in an exaggerated manner so as to bring out the laughs toward a person not really as much in peril as the screen circumstances might indicate so that there’s no mistake that the audience is taking delight in actual injury.  Not long after the real Sandy Patterson has tracked down his credit-destroying nemesis in Florida, living high on the hog off other people’s identities, he “convinces” her to go along with him back to Denver to clear his name by smashing her in the head with a guitar; had she not bounced back easily from that blow we’d immediately be in the realm of the hot topic of violence against women (yea, Senate, for reauthorizing the [anti-] Violence Against Women Act; OK, House, it’s all up to you now) instead of laughing as this life-destroying scuzzball finally gets some cartoon retribution for her constant crimes against humanity, for which she has no remorse.

However, things in this movie quickly go downhill from there as we constantly have Diana presented as something just short of the anti-Christ in the manner with which she not only lies but also constantly changes her story so as to milk every possible advantage out of the difficult situations she finds herself in, hits anybody in the throat who tries to bring her to justice so that she can continue her lifelong process of escape from her sins, turns everything to her advantage as in the eternally long scenes in which she seduces Big Chuck (Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet in the un-gayest role you can imagine) in a Georgia bar which leads to an endless sex scene back at her motel while Sandy tries to hide his senses in the bathroom so as not to have to hear every sound of their mutual seduction, played out in grotesque manner on the screen as if the couple were cows in desperate heat (which finally gets back to my “thick” comment far above, referring to Hollywood’s tendency to present any large person as an automatic object of humor, as if we would find such unbridled passion acceptable for Tatum Channing and Rooney Mara’s characters but not for their “supersized” equivalents; sure, there’s some humor in the desperately-lusty way that Diana [the possibly “real” name of McCarthy’s super-huckster character, once Bateman convinces her that the “Sandy Patterson” scam is wasted on him] and Chuck go at it while Sandy winces at his unfortunate proximity in the next room); this scene just goes on eternally (just like my sentences; apologies to my English-Comp colleagues) as a continuation of a similarly endless set-up in the preceding bar scene where the pick-up occurs, leaving the impression that once the screenwriters (Craig Mazin and Jerry Eeten) got their foundational jokes in place they had no other strategy to get to the 2-hour mark except to stretch everything out as far as possible, complicate everything as much as possible (it’s not enough to have a couple of a drug dealer’s gunmen, Julian [T.I.] and Marisol [Genesis Rodriquez; OK, technically one’s a gunwoman], in pursuit of Diana for stolen credit cards she provided to the jailed kingpin [who bribes the guards so the only things that seems really prison-ish for him are the locked door on his cell and the mandatory clothing] that didn’t work out properly—the device that encourages her to skip Florida to return to Denver with Sandy to clear his name—we also have to have a redneck skip tracer/bounty hunter [Robert Patrick] to further complicate the protagonists’ cross-country journey), and then shift gears into a sentimental mode when Diana finally acknowledges the devastation she’s caused to Sandy’s life so that we can pad some more screen time with her beauty-parlor makeover that considerably props up her appearance just as she’s becoming remorseful for her transgressions, at least where Sandy is concerned, because he’s actually showing her some consideration which is more than she says she’s ever had in her abandoned-baby, foster-care, get-by-on-your-wits-because-you-have-no-marketable-skills life.

 Just as in Side Effects we have our primary male character being manipulated by our primary female character (although Jude Law had both Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones to contend with), but here in Identity Thief they reach a state of mutual acceptance instead of antagonism, so much so that Sandy abandons the similar plan of having cops ready to snatch Diana after she clears him of any wrongdoing (just as Dr. Banks had a scheme in place to re-institutionalize Emily after she delivered the evidentiary goods on spurned-lover Victoria), but she goes him one better by turning herself in to further strengthen his story; one good turn deserves another, of course, so a year later as this all winds down we have the entire Patterson family (benevolent Dad, trusting Mom, and two precious daughters) visiting Diana in prison where Sandy even presents her with a copy of her long-lost birth certificate, revealing her actual clumsy name of Dawn Budget, which prompts her to just keep being Diana, but underneath the possible-early-release-for-good-behavior attempted façade we still have the old hellion who manages to cold-cock a guard before the final credits roll (leaving us, I suppose, rolling in the aisles … or at least walking briskly through them on the way back to the lobby after enduring this never-ending story).

As with Fisher Steven’s Stand Up Guys (reviewed here in the Feb. 8, 2013 posting), what we get in Identity Thief isn’t so much in its over-extended self as it is a quite acceptable afternoon diversion because of the acting quality of the leads.  McCarthy is a gifted comedian, able to perform atrocious acts of self-interest but still generate some sympathy for her pathetic existence, but this movie also benefits from Bateman’s simmering low-key performance as a guy who’s on the verge of complete collapse because of the undeserved tragedy that has been randomly visited upon him, yet he’s relatively calm and controlled during most of his ordeal, despite the complete lack of contrition shown to him by Diana for her transgressions (even at the end, when spending the night at the Patterson’s home before the big confession to Sandy’s employer the next day, she only reassures Trish that Sandy never laid a sexual hand on her during their catastrophic road trip—with the pursuit of various shooters and the complete annihilation of their rental car, among other ongoing difficulties—rather than ever offering even the slightest apology for the initially-uncaring harm that Diana had done to their family).  Bateman made this kind of exasperated-but-open-to-acceptance character a mainstay of the fabulously-applauded-but-ratings-underappreciated TV series Arrested Development (which we’re promised will see the light of a movie screen in the near future after a new season of episodes premieres exclusively on Netflix; may the Bluths soon be with us), and while his frustration gets the best of him a bit more in Identity Thief than it did with his unhinged TV family, he represents a sense of being a constantly-striving-for-decency, open-minded-open-hearted individual who eventually melts the securely-vaulted heart of master-thief Diana.  Combined, these two make the movie worth watching, to some degree at least, even though it’s so painfully obvious that every scene once we get to see Diana in her Florida glory or have Sandy in conflict with her is just a set-up for some absurd situation to continue squeezing laughs out of an audience that’s just been fed what they expected.  It’s a possibly-intriguing concept (but one that might have worked better as an extended skit on Saturday Night Live than as a feature-length movie), although that intrigue is undermined when you’re confronted with the reality of how many innocent people suffer each year as victims of identity theft or even just crazy mistakes on their credit reports that unjustly harm their ability to make necessary loans (a miserable situation just recently explored [Feb. 10, 2013] on CBS’s 60 Minutes, a 12 min. report you can view at—but first you have to get through a very time-consuming, hard-to-load Viagra ad, or maybe my computer just couldn’t “get it up” to flow properly [so to speak]).  Identity theft is no joke, and after a few repetitions of the same caustic-encounter, attempted-escape, scene-punctuated-by-a-brutal-shot-to-the-throat payoff, you begin to wonder if Identity Thief is enough of one either.  There are some good performances here in the cause of finding humor in an overdone structure, but this just feels like marking time before the Bluths or the Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) honor us again with something more worth our time and their efforts.  Unlike Side Effects, Identity Thief offers no career-defining moments except possibly for allowing sweet Eric Stonestreet to prove what a hetero stud he really is beneath his TV gay persona, as if that would make him any more wonderful than he already is.

Next week, my Oscar predictions, for whatever they may be worth to you.  For now it's on to Valentine's Day dinner with the incomparable Nina Kindblad.

If you’d like to know more about Side Effects here are some suggested links: (and a few links to clips from the film) (9 min. interview with Jude Law and Rooney Mara about watching themselves on screen in this film)

If you’d like to know more about Identity Thief here are some suggested links: (and just to make things interesting, here’s a little clip with Anderson Cooper and an identity-theft expert showing how your credit card number can be easily stolen as you’re putting your PIN code into an ATM)

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  1. Side Effects is certainly a good movie and I continue to be amazed how you capture the detail and nuances of the script in one sitting!

    The whole pharma centered setup is a bit much to buy considering 99% of the psychs out there would not be the slightest bit phased by their depressed patient killing her spouse. The idea that one murder would guarantee stock profits for the plotters without the murderess ending up in jail stretches credibility. Even her lawyer claimed a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity is usually a 1% probability.

    In Texas she would have been convicted and possibly executed. Certainly if she was black or brown. I do appreciate the direction, acting and methods Jude Law's character employs to clear his name and bring "justice" to the evil doers without invoking double jeopardy for the misses. Hopefully that Doctor doesn't get on your wrong side or you could be living with Jack Nicholson and Nurse Ratched.

    1. Hi rj,
      Always good to hear from you. Marvelous comments as usual, none of which I would argue with from a real-world perspective (very appropriate reference to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"), although without that famous "willing suspension of disbelief" premise that has graced fictional narratives for millennia we'd have few stories worth watching or reading because even grand historical tales like "Lincoln" surely take liberties with aspects of their delivery.

      Sad to say, the more we know about the reality of the society we inhabit the harder it is to suspend that disbelief and just flow with the dynamics of a crackerjack story (which includes "Side Effects" for both of us apparently, despite its generous use of artistic license). Praise be to J.J. Abrams for helping take us out of our reality-based present into both the future of "Star Trek" and that "Star Wars" galaxy long ago and far away where such inconveniences as facts and plausibility can be adjusted as the narratives require. Ken