Lost in the corpulent backlot of 2013 movies is “Broken City”, a political/crime thriller that features a fine cast and a common but still interesting idea. The film marks the solo directorial debut of Allen Hughes who is known for his past works with his brother including “The Book of Eli” and “Menace II Society”. An underperformer at the box office and generally panned by critics, “Broken City” is looked at as a movie that squanders its potential. But is that a fair criticism? In a nutshell, yes it is.
For me, the biggest problem with “Broken City” reveals itself early and persists through the entire picture. There is practically no fire or energy shown in any facet of movie. In a story that should generate plenty of emotional spark, all we get are dry characters, dry scenarios, and a dry ending. There is rarely a charge of life anywhere to be found and the movie seems to wallow in lethargy. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact blame. Is it the direction from Hughes? Is it Brian Tucker’s script? Could it be the actors who seemingly have no interest in what they’re doing?
Mark Wahlberg stars as a former New York police detective named Billy Taggert. Seven years after being forced to leave the department following a controversy and PR nightmare, he works as a struggling private detective. Things get complicated when the New York City Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) hires him to find out who his wife (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair with. Little does Billy know that by taking the case he would be catapulted into a complex political web involving the mayor, his opponent for the upcoming elections (Barry Pepper), and the police commissioner (Jeffrey Wright).
There is a pretty familiar formula that the movie uses while still trying to do a few things of its own. Unfortunately a lot of time is wasted on superfluous side stories that are never fleshed out to the point of being interesting. The best example of that involves Billy’s aspiring actress girlfriend (played by Natalie Martinez). Her character and their struggling relationship seems shoehorned in to try and add some humanity to Billy. She is present for a short time and then completely drops off the map. It’s also one of those movies littered with lucky timing and all sorts of conveniences. Whether Billy is pulling up just as someone throws out a suspicious bag of garbage or whether he is never spotted while supposedly hiding in plain site.
While the characters are mostly flat and dormant, there are moments where that approach really works. Crowe and Wright have some great back-and-forths generated from the internal rivalry of their characters. Their verbal jabs are stinging and these two great actors have a lot of fun with the animosity. Wahlberg doesn’t get those types of moments. He spends the entire movie stone-faced and rarely shows one ounce of emotion. I’m not sure if it is how he is written or how he was directed, but his character could have been so much better with just an ounce of charisma or personality. That toned down approach turns out to be a problem for every character.
“Broken City” does featuring some great cinematography that captures a variety of New York City flavors. And again, there are a few moments of good crisp dialogue particularly between Crowe and Wright. Unfortunately the lack of zest and the wasted time spent on half-cooked characters doesn’t elevate the film past its already formulaic structure. It’s really a shame because a movie with this strong of a cast could have been better. Instead it’s a forgettable, below-average thriller that deserves its spot in the backlot of the 2013 movies.
VERDICT – 2 STARS
Steven Soderbergh has always been a hit or miss filmmaker in my book. He has an impressive resume but the two movies of his that I truly love are more recent efforts, “The Informant” from 2009 and “Contagion” from 2011. His new film “Side Effects” looked like the new “Contagion”, that is if you went by the trailers and TV spots. But other than the small medical connection, these two films couldn’t be more different. At its core “Side Effects” is a straight up modern day thriller. It’s the first of two Soderbergh movies in 2013 which will lead into what the director is calling his filmmaking “sabbatical”.
“Side Effects” is really broken into two halves. The first half of the movie focuses on a young woman named Emily (Rooney Mara). Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after serving a 4-year sentence for insider trading. It seems like it would be a good time for the couple but Emily begins showing signs of depression. Martin tries to help her but things only seem to get worse leading to her attempting suicide by driving her speeding car into a wall. At the hospital she is examined by a psychiatrist named Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). She convinces him to let her go home as long as she agrees to regular counseling sessions with him.
The movie moves along like a clinical procedural throughout the first half. We watch Emily’s struggles with depression and we sit in on her meetings with Jonathan. We watch as he prescribes numerous medications, none of which work for her. We find out she has a history with depression and once saw another doctor named Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Jonathan meets with Victoria who recommends a drug called Ablixa. Jonathan finally agrees to give it a try and prescribes it for Emily. Things seem to get better for her except for the one side effect – sleepwalking. It’s during one of her sleepwalking episodes that she takes a knife and commits a shocking murder.
The second half of the film focuses more on Jonathan and the fallout from the murder and the court case that followed. It takes a heavy toll on Jonathan’s career and home life so he sets out to clear his name. It’s here where the movie finally starts to feel like a thriller. Soderbergh starts leading us in several different directions and causes us to question and reflect back on things we’ve already seen. At some point you’ll have suspicions of every character and their motivations. These are all things that you want and expect from a good thriller.
So considering all of these things, why didn’t I have a stronger response to “Side Effects”? It’s certainly not the acting. Everyone gives strong performances even the usually stone-faced Channing Tatum. Rooney Mara certainly answered my question of whether she could handle the lead role. But I thought it was Jude Law who was the real standout. He’s really, really good here. It’s also not the visual presentation that’s the problem. Soderbergh knows how to shoot a picture and his particular visual style of camera cuts and closeups works nicely here.
I think my problems lie in the way the story itself is structured. As I hinted at, this never feels like a thriller until well over halfway through the film. It’s only then that different threads of plot begin to branch out. But by that time the movie has but a little time to put all the pieces together. Soderbergh certainly manages to do this competently. I don’t remember there being any gaping plot holes or oversights. But I also don’t feel his ending is all that satisfying and the catalyst behind the big twist feels a little out-of-the-blue. For me the best thrillers are able to put the truth out there while causing the audience to look at it in a different and wrong way. At the end of “Side Effects” I didn’t feel it accomplished that at all.
I don’t want to be too hard on the movie because it’s a good watchable film that’s easy to digest. The performances are strong and Soderbergh has a visual style that perfectly fits this type of film. But underneath the veneer of clinical depression, pharmaceutical lingo, and legal proceedings lies a movie that never reaches its full potential. Its buildup is slow, its surprises feel arbitrary, and overall it’s underwhelming. It’s unfortunate and I still feel that somewhere offscreen lies an ending with more power and punch than the one we’re given – an ending that would give me the satisfaction I hoped for from “Side Effects”.