Monday, February 18, 2013

Side Effects: This Is Your Brain on Payback

And speaking of being firmly grounded in reality, there’s Side Effects.  This is an intriguing movie with an intellectual cast, an excellent director and a wonderful tricksy, twisty plot that defies stereotypes and the usual tropes of a Hollywood thriller. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, things go, um, sideways.  In a movie about psychiatry and mood-altering drugs, much of the action takes place appropriately in the characters’ heads.  The action lies in what they know, what they learn, what they deduce and what they plot. And who better to mess with someone’s head than a psychiatrist? 

Side Effects
Jude Law and Rooney Mara give excellent performances—what else would one expect of such top-flight actors?—but Catherine Zeta-Jones’ slithery stint as Dr. Victoria Siebert takes the cake.  She’s all surface gloss, smiling condescension, and controlled expression until we get beneath that polished surface to see the real slitheryn inside.  I had trouble buying Channing Tatum as a multi-millionaire hedge fund exec who gets his hedge trimmed but, then, I don’t know a lot of these guys.  More’s the pity; they seem to throw wonderful parties.

Best of all, there are no guns, no car chases, no exploding helicopters, no rooftop parkour stunts, and no gearing up, suiting up, or loading up.  Everyone is very civilized (most of the time) and violence is limited to one short but critical scene.  I recommend Side Effects to everyone who likes thinking, complexity, and peeling the onion back one layer at a time to find the surprise at the core.  You’ll either love the ending or you’ll hate it but it will stick with you. 

The movie got me thinking about civilized Manhattanites who move in a world of beautiful offices, spacious SoHo lofts, BMW SUVs, taxis that actually stop in the rain, fine restaurants, and designer-labeled clothing.  I’m not saying that world doesn’t exist—although it may as well have been on the moon for us when we were in our twenties and fresh out of college.  But, for most people who live in Manhattan, it’s as much of a fairy tale as the current crop of “fantasy” movies.  Manhattan is a tough place to live if you don’t have the kind of money that buys you the lifestyle shown in this and many other movies.  It’s noisy, crowded, dirty, and highly competitive.  

This is how I described living in Manhattan in an (unfinished) short story:  He’d hated Manhattan for the two years he had lived there but he knew exactly why the big city had worn him down: the constant noise, the relentless horde of people getting in his way and pushing him on streets and subways, the looming giants of buildings that made him feel insignificant, the constant fight to get what he wanted.  New Yorkers had a reputation for being angry and aggressive because that’s the way you need to be just to live in that city.  So he had left it.”

It’s not a view of Manhattan you see often on the big screen, and you certainly won’t see it in Side Effects, but it’s what I remember.  Things may have changed.  There’s been a lot of water under the Brooklyn Bridge since we moved north in 1973 and pretty much stopped our regular visits in 1996:  Chinatown has taken over the Lower East Side, Rockaway has been demolished, Harlem is getting gentrified, people are actually moving to Brooklyn and the World Trade Center is gone.  And I wouldn’t mind visiting to see an upcoming impressionist exhibit at the Met or a Broadway show.  Mostly, though, I’ll confine my visits to two hours at the Cineplex and then go home.

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