The NFL SuperBowl usually dominates the sports headlines this time of year. But this year is different. Lance Armstrong’s doping and cover up, the Manti Te'o tale of an imaginary girlfriend and her imaginary drug problem and imaginary death, and tennis star Victoria Azarenka’s medical timeout habits are important stories in sports today. So there is no better time for a major motion picture to explore the controversial topic of medical fraud. That is good timing for the February 8 launch of “Side Effects.”
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, this drama stars Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum and Vanessa Shaw. Their fan base alone ensures a huge worldwide audience for the critical topic of medical research fraud that barely gets mentioned outside the Christian Science Monitor. The suspenseful psychodrama unfolds a web of intrigue surrounding Wall Street insider trading rather than today’s sports scandals. But the doctors portrayed are as ready to ignore medical ethics and patient health to make money as Dr. Michele Ferrari, the doping doc exposed in USDA’s probe of Team Lance Armstrong. As Jude Law, who plays a financially strapped medical researcher in the film explains the theme, "the film raises the issue of relying on medicine for all the wrong reasons."
At a January 26 press conference introducing “Side Effects” to film critics and business reporters in Beverly Hills, the production team’s medical expert Dr. Sascha Barday positioned the subject diplomatically, saying “we don’t take a side.” But many viewers will feel that the film is really taking the side of the American people. An important reason for this is the meltdown in the integrity of the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries spotlighted by this month’s sports controversies. These incidents show that any leaders who have the courage to demonstrate how easy it is for medical research trials to be manipulated and for the mental health bureaucracy to cover up financial fraud are addressing some of the most important issues in 2013.
The exceptionally candid press event included a realistic discussion of the power the drug industry has to discourage scrutiny of controversies portrayed in the film. That includes ways that doctors overmedicate for profit and get away with falsifying medical documents, as well as not disclosing financial conflicts of interest. Script writer Scott Burns reported that the team experienced no pressure from big drug companies not to make the film. But Burns also explained that it took ten years to find a prominent producer -- Lorenzo Di Bonaventura -- with the expertise and leadership skills needed to make the film in a country where no leader has managed to challenge the power that big drug companies exert.
Actress Vanessa Shaw was equally candid in sharing her thoughts about the reasons why America is having to deal with these issues. “Americans lead the way and are more susceptible to it because we need to have what’s more,” she observed in an honest and realistic assessment of how so many Americans associate having more money with happiness. British actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, married to American actor Michael Douglas, compared this to the “stiff upper lip” traditions that have been a common way of responding to mental health issues in Great Britain. Zeta-Jones made it clear that a healthy upbringing for her own children was her highest priority and explained how seeing television advertisements here so often makes viewers want things instantaneously. Director Steven Soderbergh echoed their concerns with the observation that “the idea that you have peaks and valleys has become unusual.”
The congenial cast made a subtle pitch for holistic health care with a sense of humor. Channing Tatum praised director Steven Soderbergh for giving massages on the set. Zeta-Jones even thanked Soderbergh for relaxing foot massages while she was pregnant and working on their previous project, the film drama “Traffic.” Script writer Scott Burns added a humorous anecdote that reinforced the message. While Burns usually sees well enough with eyeglasses, he accidentally took the tranquilizer Ambien instead of an anti-histamine the same color to relieve an allergy to cats. He explained that he managed to somehow drive his own car from Manhattan to JFK Airport and get on a plane, but genuinely cannot remember what happened that day. The incident is one more good reason to prefer a massage instead of a pill.
While the plot of “Side Effects” is fictional, the Toronto Star reports that a similar case has in fact happened in real life. In 2010, a murder defendant named Dwayne Palmer faked mental illness and amnesia to manipulate a “Not Guilty on Grounds of Insanity” acquittal.