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.