Side Effects Indicts Big Pharma, But Does it Villainize Gays?

Spoiler Alert: This blog post discusses nearly all of the film’s many plot twists!

Last month, director Steven Soderbergh seemed to “come out” as the gay community’s latest Hollywood ally when he complained to the press about the impossibility of finding $5 million—a pauper’s sum in the film industry—to make a Liberace biopic because the project was deemed “too gay.” If Side Effects’ sloppy gay characters are any indication, though, perhaps it’s a relief that this pharma-thriller will cap Soderbergh’s multiplex career. 

Side Effects stars Rooney Mara as a depressed waif named Emily Taylor, Jude Law as her psychiatrist Dr. Banks, and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Emily’s suspiciously suspicious former therapist Dr. Siebert. The film begins as a worthwhile, if ham-fisted, exploration of the inherent neurochemical mystery of pills and the questionably cozy relationships between doctors and pharmaceutical companies. 

But as Side Effects contorts through its preposterous plot twists, it becomes clear that the film’s real preoccupation isn’t the sins of the drug industry or the casual consumption of mind-altering tablets. In fact, the film neatly sweeps all those issues under the rug to warn moviegoers of far urgent danger within its paranoid universe: evil lesbians bent on destroying the lives of innocent straight men.

The most disappointing aspect of the film’s tired recycling of the Gay Villain archetype is that Scott Z. Burns’ script has some interesting ideas about femininity, melancholia, and gendered medical treatment. In the first act, Emily schemes to get away with the murder of her husband (Channing Tatum), a former finance guy just released from prison for insider trading, by performing the part of a damsel-in-depression for Dr. Banks. When Emily blames her anti-depressants for making her sleep-kill her spouse, she essentially argues—and Dr. Banks, her knight in a white labcoat, initially agrees—that her brain is somehow too frail and delicate for the pills. Because of Emily’s supposed neural delicacy, culpability for the murder then falls not on her, but on Dr. Banks, the man seemingly in charge.

It’s at this point in the film that Side Effects transitions from a thoughtful drama about modern depression into a noir mystery about malevolent lesbians. 

It’s very likely that Soderbergh did not intend to make an anti-gay film, but, at least to this viewer, he most certainly did just that. Unmoored from their previous roles as patient and doctor, Emily and her lover/accomplice Dr. Siebert become cartoon villainesses. The gay lovers wreak havoc by first destroying Emily’s heterosexual coupling, then dragging Dr. Bank’s reputation through the mud and breaking up his family in the process.  

The pair’s viciousness toward Dr. Banks seems absurd, especially given that the women are hardly soul mates: by the film’s end, Emily readily betrays Dr. Siebert for a reduced prison sentence. The Gay Villains, then, are not driven by love, only self-interest and greed. Maybe the film could have been moderately salvaged by actresses with intense interpersonal chemistry. But despite a long make-out scene, Mara and Zeta-Jones have romantic tension that feels looser than Adam Sandler and Kevin James’

A film with homosexual villains doesn’t automatically make it homophobic, and Side Effects could have easily avoided offensiveness by fleshing out its lesbian lovers and making them into characters with hobbies, histories, or quirks. But in the end, there’s little psychological development of Emily or Dr. Siebert. All we end up knowing about the two women is their sexuality and their amorality. In such a narrative void, there’s no other conflation to make but the tired one between gayness and evil. Not all homophobia comes from ill will or fear; sometimes it’s just a side effect of the usual self-worship by white males. 

In the final act,  Side Effects jettisons Emily as its protagonist to crusade on behalf of the bland Dr. Banks. Jude Law’s character transforms from a shady, sloppy doc into a fantasy of white male hypercompetence. Dr. Banks’ battle against evil lesbian scheme-hatchery sculpts him into a perfect husband, father, and doctor. It’s surprising there isn’t an epilogue to the film of him undergoing yet another transformation—this time into a saint, or maybe Superman. 

by Inkoo Kang
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9 Comments Have Been Posted

Comment deleted?

I made a comment yesterday and it appeared, how come it was deleted? From what I understand, I stayed within the confines of the comment moderation policy....

Anyways, plot points completely overlooked in the critique

I think it's important to note that Emily is not a lesbian, not in the loosest sense of the word.

<i>In fact, the film neatly sweeps all those issues under the rug to warn moviegoers of far urgent danger within its paranoid universe: evil lesbians bent on destroying the lives of innocent straight men.</i>

It's obvious that you didn't catch it: Emily was angry at her husband for humiliating her by getting arrested for insider trading and essentially leaving her penniless. She was not, nor was ever, a lesbian. She was living a charmed life, not having to work, in the lap of luxury, only to have it completely taken away from her. She had to move back to the city, get a job, and support herself.

At the time of her husband's arrest, she was seeing Dr Siebert, and in her, saw an opportunity, and a scheme was born: Emily would teach Dr Siebert everything about shorting stocks and buying options, while Dr Siebert would teach Emily how to appear depressed, manic, and in need of psychiatric care. They conspired to not only murder Martin, but also in the wake of it, make tons of money by bringing the stock down. Emily would have her revenge against her husband and that was how she would make back the fortune that he lost: by causing Ablixa to look bad (sleepwalk murdering people? Death sentence for a drug) and thus causing the stock to fall. That's how they made money on it. That's what a put option is, or "shorting" a stock (it's how Bear Stearns went under).

Emily always intended to get rid of Dr. Siebert so she could have all of the money. She never cared for her. And, she also took advantage of Dr Siebert's sexual vulnerability. The reason why there is no chemistry or fleshing-out of their characters because their relationship was a total sham, at least it was to Emily. And it was kept secret for most of the movie, so how on earth could they have fleshed it out, and given them hobbies, histories, and quirks?

<i>The pair's viciousness toward Dr. Banks seems absurd, especially given that the women are hardly soul mates: by the film’s end, Emily readily betrays Dr. Siebert for a reduced prison sentence. </i>

That's because Emily used Dr Siebert from the very beginning and was never in love with her or cared for her at all, she needed someone to make the trades (I'm guessing she was banned from trading due to her husband's conviction), and she needed someone to teach her how to act on psychiatric drugs. She faked a relationship with Dr Siebert and earned her trust and took advantage of a fragile woman as a means to her end.

Dr Banks was merely a means to an end. He wasn't chosen in advance, it didn't matter that he was a man, he happened to walk into her room after her car accident, and there was her target. She needed someone to prescribe her Ablixa, and she also needed Dr Siebert to hint to Dr Banks to prescribe her Ablixa. And, they needed to discredit Dr Banks because *someone* had to take the blame. and it couldn't be Emily.

What Dr Banks did was see right through a woman faking a mental illness and a relationship with her old therapist and saw that she was sane, competent, and completely aware of what she had done and unfazed by it, where most people would believe her because she's viewed as a fragile woman. The reason why Emily sought out to destroy and discredit him was so he would stop working on her case so she could appear to be getting better to a new psychiatrist and get released from the psychiatric ward. But she didn't count on him catching on and fighting back.

Remember her lie about Julia? that was one of the first indications to Dr Banks that she was lying. She didn't count on him to follow up with that.

None of those plot details

None of those plot details contradict the image of the two mirror-image brunettes making out, Mara's blatant sexual dialogue, or the way the film pits the two devious women against Law's heterosexual nuclear family, which is reunited at the end once both women are jailed and punished.

Emily is NOT a lesbian in any

Emily is NOT a lesbian in any way shape or form. You're just willfully ignoring very important plot points then to twist them into the movie being about "malevolent lesbians". What part of "Emily would do anything to get back at her husband" is a difficult concept to grasp, even faking being in love with her ex therapist? So a woman can't fake being in love with someone? Her "blatant sexual dialogue" couldn't possibly be faked (she did, after all, fake being mentally ill and on prescription medication, so why is faking being in love with another woman such a stretch)? It was all a part of her plan to get back at her husband. Seriously, watch the movie. It's obvious she's not gay.

"the way the film pits the two devious women against Law's heterosexual nuclear family, which is reunited at the end once both women are jailed and punished"

Because they hardcore broke the law. Emily committed *murder* and Dr Siebert committed securities fraud. They never sought out to destroy Dr Banks and his family, like I said, he was collateral damage (he was the unlucky fellow who happened to treat her after her car accident). They plotted to get back at *Martin* by making his murder look like it was the fault of the side effects of the drug (which she never took), and securities fraud to get back the money he lost when he was convicted and jailed for securities fraud.

The only thing they directly did to Dr Banks was send his wife the photos to further discredit him so he would take the blame, and not Emily. Seriously, watch the movie and pay attention.

nailed it

You are so right about this film. I'm flabbergasted at the preponderance of positive reviews; this is stereotypical gay bashing out of the 1950s or 60s, not something I'd expect from Soderbergh.

Totally agree

Yes! Thank goodness someone else felt this way. How could the other reviewers miss it?

I really think it's time to retire lesbian desire as motivation for crime. Find a new plot-twist, folks! This one's utterly tapped out.

Some shameless self-promotion: What's with all the women who destroy lives when they can't deal with life's imperfections? A look at SIDE EFFECTS and GONE GIRL at

Did you watch the movie?

"I really think it's time to retire lesbian desire as motivation for crime. Find a new plot-twist, folks! This one's utterly tapped out."

Except if you watched the movie, it wasn't lesbian desire as motivation for crime. It's so obvious that it was her being upset with her husband for getting caught for securities fraud and having her whole life ripped away from her. I'm so sick of hearing "EVIL KILLER LESBIANS" when it's not that case at all, and anyone who watched the movie and actually paid attention would know that immediately.

Your review

I read your review just now and I think it's much more spot-on than this one published by Bitch. Instead focusing on what the movie was really about, disappointed housewife who lost her fortune and station and whose husband went to jail for four years. Much more spot-on.

Hitchcocks gay killers are way better

The film is glossy, well acted by Mara and Law (not so much by Zeta Jones) but the Lesbian storyline was perposterous, unesscessary. and reactionary. It would have been fine if the relationship between Mara and Zeta Jones was fleshed out to show Emily exploiting or coercing Dr Siebert into the crime. Or if they had dropped it totally and it was just a criminal enterprise the film would have been better.

I think its slightly unfair to suggest that the male hetrosexual protaganists are painted as hero's being brought low by evil women. Law's character was shown willing to get all ther perks and bonuses big Pharma can give and not above abusing his ability to proscribe drugs. His ethics are dubious to say the least. Tatums character is back on the road to jail and seemed to have learnt nothing.

An obvious comparison Soderberg wants us to make and many other reviewers have is with Hitchcock's thrillers and he had a few with psycho gays in them. However his gay characters are far more interesting and nouenced then Soderbergs. Whilst you cant absolve Hitchcock of Homophobia for his time he isnt as bad as many other directors and adapted books by Gay or Bi-sexual writers like Patricia Highsmith and Daphne Du Maurier.
Mrs Danvers in Rebecca is greif striken over the death of Rebecca De Winter but she was idolising a women with no interest in her except exploitation. Her complex relationship with the dead Mistress of the house is dialectically related to Maxmillian;s own complex relationship and even the 2nd Mrs De Winter develops towards the dead first wife.
The two villians in Rope are gay and based on Leopold and Loeb, two killers from the 1920s. However at the party they throw its obvious that everyone knows they are gay and they are pretty much out the closet. Brandon and Philip's arrogance and fascistic worldview are seen as the cause of the murder not their Homosexuality. Indeed there are subtle suggestions that the James Stewart character may have a gay past too.
Uncle Charlie in Shadow of A doubt is portrayed first and foremost as a misogynist and a psychopath. It is also suggested he may be gay or at least has no interest in women. Their are all kind of sexual subtexts in the film and the gay subtext is less strong then the incestous subtext obvious in the strong feelings young Charlie has for her own uncle and namesake.
Finally there is Norman Bates in Psycho who is often held up as being gay or a Transvestite. Actually Hitchcock is specific in saying Norman is not a transvestite but a paranoid pscitzophrenic who wears his mothers clothes because he thinks he is his mother. Is Norman also gay? well the movie makes plain that Norman is aroused by Marion Crane and the guilt that causes triggers the episode when he kills her.

Hitchcock also wasnt above playing around with suggestions that his hero and heroines sexuality as ambigous. I dont think i am alone in seeing that in the Margaret Lockwood character in The Lady Vanishes, Marnie or Roger O Thornhill in North By North West.

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