Special ‘Effects,’ idiotic ‘Thief,’ awful ‘Bullet’

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FS, Contributing Writer

“Side Effects”

Rooney Mara (left) and Channing Tatum (right) star in Soderbergh's cleverly-crafted "Side Effects."
Rooney Mara (left) and Channing Tatum (right) star in Soderbergh’s cleverly-crafted “Side Effects.”

Director Steven Soderbergh has suggested that he intends to take a long break – perhaps never even make another movie – after Side Effects (wide release). If that turns out to be the case, at least he’s going out on a high note.
The picture starts out looking very much like a cable-quality message movie about the dangers posed by modern pharmaceuticals. Emily (Rooney Mara) seems happy when her husband (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after a four-year stint for insider stock trading. But she suffers from depression, and after an apparent suicide attempt she’s prescribed a series of antidepressants by a sympathetic doctor (Jude Law).
Unfortunately, the medication has a very undesirable – and violent – side effect. And when it’s revealed that the good doctor has been getting a hefty payment for steering his patients onto the drugs, he falls under a cloud, accused of malpractice.
That’s the point at which the movie turns into a clever thriller, as the therapist undertakes an investigation of Emily’s history. That takes him to a psychiatrist whom she had consulted years earlier – a manipulative woman (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who’s also involved in the pharmaceutical trade.
It would be completely unfair to reveal too much about the turns that Scott Z. Burns’s canny screenplay takes from this point. Suffice it to say that the plot is serpentine, with more twists than many viewers will be able to count. But they’ll certainly have a good time trying to keep up.
As for Soderbergh, he treats the piece with a deftness that Hitchcock himself would have envied.
Side Effects is a gleefully enjoyable exercise in misdirection.

“Identity Thief”

Melissa McCarthy (left) and Jason Bateman (right) fail to pull off the obnoxious comedy "Identity Thief"
Melissa McCarthy (left) and Jason Bateman (right) fail to pull off the obnoxious comedy “Identity Thief”

For some reason, ever since Bridesmaids, Melissa McCarthy has been considered one of the screen’s most promising comediennes. With Identity Thief (wide release) she gets her first starring vehicle, and it’s a pretty dilapidated jalopy.
The supposedly hilarious premise of the movie is that Sandy (Jason Bateman), a Denver businessman, has his identity stolen by a motor-mouthed Florida broad (McCarthy). It’s hard to feel sorry for him because he was dumb enough to give her all his personal information over the phone.
But it’s easy to feel sorry for yourself as you suffer through the pair’s long road trip from the Sunshine State to Colorado, marked by lots of slapstick violence, sexual escapades and rough language. They’re pursued by cops, a redneck skip-tracer (Robert Patrick) and a couple of mob goons, which makes for plenty of predictable – and tedious – comic shenanigans.  And of course they bond as the trip proceeds.
Throughout it all McCarthy throws herself into her customary frantic shtick, with ever-diminishing returns. A particularly gross scene with a drunken cowboy in a motel room shows that she’s willing to go to humiliating lengths for a laugh – and the fat jokes don’t seem to faze her, either. Meanwhile, Bateman looks on as a hapless straight-man.
The last act, of course, requires McCarthy’s character to morph from abrasive and obnoxious to abrasive but sympathetic. The intent is to copy the combination of humor and heart of John Hughes’s Planes, Trains & Automobiles, but the result feels more like pilfering than homage.
McCarthy will need to choose more carefully if she’s not to become the female Kevin James.

“Bullet to the Head”

Sylvester Stallone's action-packed scenes cannot save the poor script and plot in "Bullet to the Head"
Sylvester Stallone’s action-packed scenes cannot save the poor script and plot in “Bullet to the Head”

Going to the multiplex nowadays is starting to feel like stepping into a time warp. Last week it was Arnold Schwarzenegger starring in a silly action movie, The Last Stand. This week Sylvester Stallone resumes his assault on the comeback trail with Bullet to the Head (wide release).
Sly, who’s had so much cosmetic work done on his face that it looks like it’s made of wax rather than human skin, plays a New Orleans hit-man who teams up with an out-of-town (and thus fish-out-of-water) cop to catch the mastermind responsible for the murder of his partner.
The movie is filled with shootouts, fistfights and other explosions of violence, culminating in a ludicrous face-off in which Stallone and another muscleman go at one another with a couple of huge axes.
But all the mindless mayhem can’t save a script in which the motive behind everything is a condominium project, and the MacGuffin – the item everybody’s after – is a simple flash drive.
By the time Bullet to the Head lurches to a conclusion, you might welcome one yourself.

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