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Harmful Side Effects

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Open Road
Open Road

WARNING: This blog post contains major plot spoilers. If you have not seen Side Effects, read on at your own discretion.

At the start of my college career, I toyed with the idea of attending film school in hopes that I would become a great director one day. From an early age I was fascinated by thrillers, particularly the medical kind. I remember watching Hitchcock movies with my father growing up. Years later I became obsessed with the works of De Palma, Cronenberg and other auteurs whose films delved into the human psyche and all its complexities. For better or worse, I ultimately decided on a career in medicine, but I maintained my fascination with film and its history.

Around the time that I entered medical school, I became aware that I am gay. Like most gay individuals, I struggled with accepting this part of myself, not knowing at the time whether I was born this way or whether it was a choice. As a gay youth I found very few gay role models, so, like many other confused kids, I looked to movies for guidance, but what I found was horrifying: Gays were often portrayed as laughable sissies or, worse, as dangerous psychopaths who often died a painful death in the end.

The gay psycho killer may seem like a cliché now, but it lives again in Side Effects, a new film by Steven Soderbergh. Following the success of his 2011 hit Contagion, which follows the transmission of a virus across the globe, Soderbergh directs his focus here on psychiatrists and the pharmaceutical industry. Jude Law's character, Dr. Jonathan Banks, is an overworked, money-hungry psychiatrist who needs to pay his mortgage and his stepson's private school tuition. To do this he relies on a pharmaceutical company that offers him $50,000 to enroll patients in its latest clinical trial. He agrees over a lavish lunch at Le Cirque.

I'll admit that there was a time, long before I became a physician, when pharmaceutical companies splurged on doctors. With the new pharmaceutical guidelines, though, those days are long gone. Today you can't even find a pen with a drug's brand name printed on it. But the film's mischaracterization of doctors and pharmaceutical companies isn't its worst mistake. Even when Dr. Banks interviews Rooney Mara's character, Emily Taylor, after a suicide attempt and releases her without the obligatory 24-hour observation period, I accepted the apparent error in judgment thinking that there would be a payoff in the end. I was wrong. Side Effects' worst transgression is that it brings back the role of the gay psycho killer.

In short, Side Effects is about a troubled woman, Emily, who marries her wealthy Wall Street boyfriend Martin, played by Channing Tatum, but shortly thereafter, he is arrested for insider trading. Plagued by a history of depression, Emily seeks the care of Dr. Victoria Siebert, a psychiatrist played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. Although both appear to be straight, Emily seduces the lonely, divorced Dr. Siebert, and together they plot to kill Martin upon his release from prison, blame his death on a side effect of the new antidepressant that Dr. Banks has given Emily and then benefit financially when the stock prices plummet. Why Emily doesn't seduce the male psychiatrist is not clear. I guess she thinks "converting" a woman would be easier. In any case, once again, another old stereotype emerges, perpetuating the erroneous belief that heterosexuals can be turned gay if the right man, or in this case the right woman, comes along. But rest assured, straight people: The "lesbians" get it in the end.

I suppose screenwriter Scott Burns thought that no one would suspect that the two women were in it together from the start. Of course, some of us may have been fooled, but not because the killers turn out to be gay in the end. The confusion arises from the fact that we are asked to accept that a psychiatrist can be seduced by her bipolar patient, become gay, conspire to murder someone and be involved in insider trading. For a minute I thought it was 1940 and I was watching Hitchcock's Rebecca. Remember that horrid Mrs. Danvers? She's the housekeeper who secretly loves her mistress and perishes in a fire in the end. Or Michael Caine's character in DePalma's 1980 hit, Dressed to Kill? He's a psychopathic transsexual psychiatrist who is locked up in an asylum after he murders a female patient for coming on to him. I thought we'd come so far since then.

As a doctor, I can shrug off the stupid characterization of doctors as rich puppets of the pharmaceutical industry, but as a gay man in 2013, I found Side Effects pretty offensive. In perpetuating the stereotype of the crazed gay killer, Soderbergh marginalizes gay people. To think it's been 24 years since Soderbergh's first film, Sex, Lies and Videotape, in which he explored sexual repression and dysfunction! Sadly, I would have thought his view of sexuality would be far more contemporary than his latest film leads me to believe.

Watch the trailer: