Does Gwyneth Paltrow Really Die? Well, her *character* does. She's not the only Award-winning actor who croaks, either.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Two Rhesus monkeys out of five.
A Global Epidemic Epic? Surely You Can Come Up With Some Appropriate Puns, Peter Hammond Style? Contagion will have you down with the sickness!" "I've got a fever, and the only cure is more Contagion!" "The number of thrills is far from "Paltr[ow]y!"
Brief Plot Synopsis: The CDC, WHO, and a star-studded cast attempt to get out in front of a mysterious illness threatening to turn into a worldwide pandemic.
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) returns from a business trip to China with more than a bagful of souvenir Mao action figures. She's picked up a mysterious virus that is both airborne and lethal. Within a few days, she and her son are dead, yet husband Thomas (Matt Damon) is curiously unaffected. This bodes well for him as the virus spreads worldwide, forcing a variety of agencies and doctors to attempt to isolate the strain and come up with a virus before millions die.
So I Guess Beth Couldn't..."Shake The Disease?" Just stop.
Critical Analysis: Like you (probably), I was pretty jazzed when I heard Steven Soderbergh was directing a movie about a global outbreak (that wasn't a remake of Outbreak). I was eager to see what a guy who presents so many different looks and styles would bring to a modern-day version of The Andromeda Strain.
Not so much, as it turns out.
Contagion starts off strong. Killing off one of your marquee actresses and a kid in the first 15 minutes is pretty ballsy, and appeals to that not-insignificant portion of the moviegoing population that is, shall we say, weary of Paltrow. It also sets a high bar for suspense throughout the remainder of the film. And to his credit, Soderbergh maintains this for roughly half the movie, upping the ante by jacking up the body count and highlighting the inherently unsanitary nature of our existence. Seriously, if you're a germaphobe, you'll be wetting your pants every time someone clears their throat in the theater.
And then Contagion just sort of...coasts. After shots of panicked citizens storming pharmacies (for a holistic remedy that may or may not actually work) and military crackdowns, the movie turns into what feels like part two of a TV miniseries. The mood -- and score -- shift perceptibly as the heroic doctors and scientists work towards their inevitable discovery of a cure. How do I know it's inevitable? Because not once during the second half of the film, even after thousands start dying and riots threaten to break out across the globe, do we ever doubt there's going to be a happy ending.
There's the framework of a good movie here, but it's like a house gutted for renovation. I'm curious to see if a director's cut emerges somewhere down the line, because the film feels incomplete, with chunks of story seemingly missing (Cotillard's character disappears for almost an hour, to the point I'd almost forgotten she was in the movie at all).
I appreciated the attempts to paint at least a couple of the characters in a less than sympathetic light: Beth stops over in Chicago for a quickie with her lover on the way back from China (yes ladies, she cheats on Matt Damon), and both online journalist Alan (Jude Law) and CDC spokesman Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) show some human (read: flawed) tendencies. Unforuntately, everyone else has about as much depth as a saucepan. Every doctor is a paragon of Aesculapian virtue, and the sole military character is such a flinty-eyed, take no bullshit hardass. I don't know why they bothered hiring as gifted an actor as Bryan Cranston to play him.
In fact, the casting is a problem. Not because anyone does a poor job (though Fishburne is forced to deliver most of the worst lines), but because it takes you completely out of the story as you think, "Hey, it's the guy from Deadwood" (John Hawkes, playing a CDC janitor), or "Hey, Elliott Gould!" (as Doctor Sussman). This kind of thing works in Woody Allen ensemble comedies, but is much less effective here.
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And another thing, I don't know if Soderbergh has earned your -- or my -- automatic attendance at his movies simply for having directed "Sex, Lies and Videotape" and "Solaris." The guy also directed "Erin Brockovich" and "Ocean's Twelve," you know. He's not Billy Wilder yet, and this strangely detached exercise masquerading as medical drama only confirms this.
See It/Rent It/Skip It: Skip it. Contagion is too by-the-numbers and predictable to be very entertaining, in spite of its cast.
Contagion is in theaters today. Stay home and wash your hands repeatedly.