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.

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