Judge Bill Gibron used to believe in the Mary Poppins mantra that a spoonful of sugar helped the medicine go down. Sadly, no amount of saccharine or schmaltz can help this lighthearted look at the pharmaceutical trade be any more appetizing.
You may need a drug to get through this one.
Karly Hert hates her job. She pimps product for a large drug company and can barely play by the BS bureaucratic rules laid down by her bosses. She is sick of worrying about "moving market share" and "kissing ass" to get doctors and hospitals to buy her wares. After a chance meeting with the decent, down to earth Zach, Karly feels the need to change. She sets up a schedule, determined to quit her job in six short months. In order to get through this taxing time period, she decides to play it straight with her clients—no more promises, no more lies, and no more marketing mumbo jumbo. She will tell them the truth and let the milligrams fall where they may. Oddly enough, her new approach works like gangbusters and she soon has the ear of her superiors. As her reputation grows, so do her paychecks and the perks that go with being a success. Zach soon becomes unimportant, as does her looming deadline for quitting. Everything is jeopardized, however, when she discovers that her company may be involved in some unethical cover-ups regarding the Side Effects to their products. As a result, Karly decides to make a stand. Her only fear is that it may be too late to save her soul—or the man that she loves.
Though it stumbles significantly along the way, and can't quite get its love story straight, Side Effects is actually a fairly decent independent film. This fresh if formulaic look at one perky pharmaceutical rep's crisis of conscience features a wonderful lead performance by Grey's Anatomy's Katherine Heigl and some inventive ideas from first time writer/director Kathleen Slattery-Moschkau. By setting this story within a world many of us have little or no connection to (the big business balloon of legalized drug dealing), it creates an immediate level of interest as well as a unique insider view of the workings within such a firm. For a while, this is all that the movie needs. Heigl breezes along on her scattered sorority-girl charms and our hyphenated helmer piles on the vignette-style comedy to get us good and settled in. Watching Side Effects, one is easily reminded of movies like Working Girl, where a plucky if poorly placed heroine rises in the ranks via chutzpah and a weird way of discovering the inner providence in everything around her. After the first few minutes, we get a handle on Karly's concerns—her distant, deviant father, overbearing mother, clueless career incompetence—and actually begin to root for her.
Then Side Effects goes purposefully pear-shaped. The introduction of idealist Zach as a love interest for our merry miss is a flaw that the film barely recovers from. Zach is designed as the antithesis of the corporate world—earthy, empathetic, and emotional. He sweeps Karly off her feet with nothing more than a desire to build his own home (apparently, this is the new aphrodisiac of choice for slacker romantics). They instantly become as thick and thieves, even doing some dog shopping together. Karly plans on making this partnership legal once she quits her job and Zach is determined to get that new love shack up and running. Still, while we watch all this fairytale fluff, we are perplexed and find ourselves pondering a great many things. What does Karly see in this skinny stiff? Why would she be prone to pitch her entire economic livelihood for a dude who wants to DIY his life away? Is she really going to enjoy life with this alternative Euell Gibbons? Most importantly, if she loves Zach so much, why is she so easily swayed back into the materialistic mode once the bonus checks start rolling in?
Then there is the fact that the quixotic elements of the film really flatten the narrative. Where once we thought we were going to see a gal pull herself up by her blonde brainpan, we instead get a sappy story of a conformist who longs to break free, but who can also be easily dissuaded from said by the scent of a new company car. Slattery-Moschkau doesn't really set up that dilemma in Karly's mind. She's so determined to quit that she changes everything about her life to make her remaining six months as passive as possible. Naturally she alienates her roommate (a hefty African-American actress whom we are never properly introduced to and whose arrival is jarring and unexplained), drives away Zach, and buddies up with the horrible heads of her department at work. All the while, corny fem-rock songs play in the background, delivering dirge-like drones that make Ani DiFranco sound like Barbra Streisand. Following the staid cinematic formula to its very end, there is a confrontation with the powers that be at—where else—a large gala celebration. Secrets are revealed, stands are made, and our heroine finds the huevos to tell off her potential payday and walk out with her man. Cue the candy floss and drop the Dramamine. If it weren't for the solid underpinning of drug company conspiracy theorizing, something very au currant in the news, Side Effects might be even more insignificant. Still, because of the performances and the overriding sense of social outrage, we forgive many of the more flummoxing faults.
It would be nice to say that Hummingbird Pictures delivers a definite DVD treatment of this title with this release. Sadly, this critic cannot properly comment on the tech specs. The copy given for review was a screener, with its "Property of" propaganda slavered all over the onscreen image. The print provided was a non-anamorphic letterboxed offering with decent colors, nice details, and an overall professional feel. The Dolby Digital Stereo delivers the dialogue (and those horrid songs) in near-crystal clarity. However, there is supposed to be a Surround Sound 5.1 track on the true release. As for extras, the case claims that this release will have a commentary (none was available on this version), a Behind the Scenes featurette (ditto), an additional documentary (about how evil the drug companies are—it was present and sort of engaging), and a trailer (actually we get two, as well as a collection of media clips). Perhaps Slattery-Mocshkau clarifies her position regarding the plot on her alternate narrative track (she herself was a sales consultant for the pharmaceutical trade) or maybe the Behind the Scenes featurette explained the problematic placement of the roommate character. Anyone buying this DVD will probably gain such insights. All this critic had to work with was the movie and a never-ending, electronically embedded warning.
Side Effects proves that if you deal in subject matter that you know very well and find the perfect acting persona to illustrate your aims, you can make a mildly entertaining movie. Had Janet-of-all-Trades Kathleen Slattery-Moschkau swapped the clichéd for the critical, we might have a minor masterwork on our hands. Sadly, as an engaging, entertaining time, this film is more placebo than prescription.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Pro-Active Entertainment
• Full-length Audio Commentary
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