Sunday, September 11, 2011

Not Catchy Enough: Soderbergh's Contagion

(To avoid spoilers, jump to second paragraph.)

A contagious virus, spread by human breath or touch, infects individuals in Macau, and they take the disease all over the world. Their contact with other humans spreads the disease exponentially. Researchers race to identify the malignancy. Once it is identified, doctors endeavor to develop a vaccine. Victims die in droves. People panic and riot for food. A paranoid conspiracy theorist uses his blog to raise suspicions about incompetent government handling of the crisis. The blogger also says that he has discovered a homeopathic cure. A disease investigator is kidnapped; the ransom price is a supply of vaccinations. Fear escalates. More riots. Rage. Chaos.

It’s all possible, and at its best, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion vividly charts the escalation of panic and chaos, with tensely staged vignettes set in Macau, Hong Kong, Chicago, London, D.C., and San Francisco. In addition, a star-heavy cast, that includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, and an as-himself cameo by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, helps establish our sympathies when wooden acting and the film’s distancing matter-of-fact tone fail to win them.

After a poorly written couple of speeches in which Matt Damon’s mild-mannered father, Mitch Emhoff, uses the word “sweetie” at least six times as he watches his wife (Paltrow) go into convulsions on the kitchen floor and as he warns his step-son to stand back, Damon grounds the film and provides its emotional core with his performance as a loving father determined to help his daughter survive the epidemic. As Erin Mears, a doctor in charge of the overwhelming task of containing the disease, Kate Winslet is totally invested, as Kate Winslet always is. Meanwhile, Marion Cotillard’s appearance as the kidnapped doctor is an afterthought; Fishburne’s performance is painfully bland; and Elliot Gould is downright dreadful.

Even though Soderbergh provides enough tightly edited vignettes that are genuinely scary and some grim shots of social decay, the bland acting detracts from the whole. Though sometimes over the top, Jude Law establishes the most interesting character: Alan Krumwiede, the paranoid blogger, and sometimes his performance is wonderfully riveting. Meanwhile, the film’s global scope provides visual fascination, but it also abbreviates some very commendable suspense.

What I liked best about this mostly satisfying movie is that its best shots require nothing from its prestigious cast of characters. Soderbergh thrills us when he plots the spread of the disease by focusing the camera on a glass or a handshake or an escalator railing. In fact, the film’s best sequence, its final one, involves a bat and a pig.


Sam Juliano said...

"It’s all possible, and at its best, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion vividly charts the escalation of panic and chaos, with tensely staged vignettes set in Macau, Hong Kong, Chicago, London, D.C., and San Francisco."

Well Hokahey, Lucille and I have tentative plans to see this film later this evening. I haven't hidden my disappointment with Soderbergh's last several features, but it's clear enough this one goes in a radical new direction. I understand you have some issues here with the writing, but have come down on the positive side with a very fine piece of writing. I couldn't help but read the spoilers too, but I really did know the story arc already.

FilmDr said...

I liked Jude Law's performance too, especially his willingness to look tense and ugly even amidst all of the alumnae of The Talented Mr. Ripley, a film where he was the handsomest mellowest fellow around. Didn't you find the treatment of a blogger something of a negative stereotype?

I never thought of the weaknesses of the movie in terms of the acting, but more in terms of follow-through. Soderbergh would've needed the larger canvas of a mini-series to adequately depict the social upheavals just hinted at in Contagion. I kept thinking--what's Matt Damon's character doing still hanging around his nice house? Wouldn't he have to move by now, or starve? The movie seemed to want to return to normalcy, when that was highly unlikely. I ultimately liked Contagion for the way it raises questions, but it doesn't begin to answer them.

Hokahey said...

Sam, thanks for the comment. The movie is well worth seeing! Tell me what you think.

FilmDr. - I saw your review and I see that we agree on lots of points. I need to get over there and read it completely and comment, but I liked your mention of Kafka, a movie I really enjoyed, being a Kafka fan.

We both enjoyed Law, but, I agree, I was disappointed that his blogger character didn't end up as the hero! We're heroes, aren't we?

Despite some parts that cut into the tension disappointingly, I wanted this movie to go on. I could have done at least an hour more if it had covered the social breakdown in more detail and had not resolved the vast crisis so quickly.

Jason Bellamy said...

The word Damon's character keeps calling his wife, and once his son, is "honey." But that's neither here nor there. I thought that was odd, too.

It's an interesting film. Film Doc says it well: "I ultimately liked Contagion for the way it raises questions."

I didn't think of the acting as weak (like you, I don't care for Gould, but I've never cared for Gould). There just isn't much to play. Soderbergh treats the actors more or less like the glasses and handles that you mention: they're disease carriers, and not much more.

The film's weakness might also be its strength: it never slows down long enough to get emotional. That hurts it in some ways; after his initial outburst, Damon doesn't seem to think about his wife until however many months later. But it helps it, too, in making this film a portrait of a spreading epidemic, rather than an examination of the people in its path. It's an unusual film in that respect, and that leads to the interesting questions it inspires.

That said, "not catchy enough" certainly applies. It's an engaging movie, but nothing more.

Hokahey said...

Thanks, Jason. That's well said that the movie is less about the characters and more about the spreading disease. That's why it's fitting that the film ends with how the disease starts spreading and how Mitch's wife becomes a carrier. Almost sets the story up for a Part 2, a second version with more focus on characters and more scenes showing the crumbling infrastructure.