After director Steven Soderbergh’s latest, the deadly virus thriller Contagion, Gwyneth Paltrow will now have the power to clear a room whenever she coughs at dinner parties. The sound of anything raspy leaving her mouth will cause large, grown men to scatter as if somebody dropped a rabid weasel with a bomb strapped to its ass into the middle of a social gathering.
Paltrow plays Beth, a world traveler who picks the wrong time to visit Hong Kong, becoming Patient 1 in a virus epidemic that will kill many and kill them fast. Her cough at the beginning of the film is a good one. It’s a cough that says, “I, and the people in the surrounding area, are seriously screwed! Robitussin won’t clear up this sucker!” Let it also be said that Paltrow can do a foaming at the mouth seizure like nobody else in the business.
Her cough sets off a chain reaction that has various people touching this and breathing that until the new virus has gone worldwide and caused serious types like Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) to calmly contemplate the end of a large swath of humanity. Kate Winslet costars as Dr. Mears, an eager worker who, perhaps, should’ve chosen to be a professional golfer rather than somebody trying to trace the origins of a mega-virus.
Matt Damon delivers some seriously good work as Mitch, Beth’s husband, forced to deal with much unexpected death mere hours after learning his wife and kid seemingly have the sniffles. His hospital reaction scenes are a major piece of work. Damon’s story arc is one of the film’s best.
Not so good is Jude Law as some kind of militant blogger and Marion Cotillard as a kidnapped doctor. Both of these subplots muddy the waters and slow the film down. The Law subplot is especially confusing. His character is portrayed as a maverick at first, but then he degenerates into some sort of blanket statement about how bloggers are reckless and evil. He feels like he’s in the wrong movie. And he has a fake, jagged tooth that is mighty distracting.
The first half of the film is Soderbergh at his finest. He creates a true sense of dread as the medical situation spirals out of control. The same can’t be said for the second half. While it isn’t bad at all, it’s much hokier than what precedes it. There’s a handshake moment involving John Hawkes and Fishburne that’s a real groaner, awkwardly scripted and acted.
Jennifer Ehle plays a doctor who valiantly experiments on herself to find a vaccine. The portrayal of doctors and the medical community is mostly negative in this film, so I get the feeling Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns threw this silly character in to balance things out and insure that their general practitioners don’t do bad things to them during their next check-ups. Oh, the things that can happen when those latex gloves snap on.
For every goofy character in the movie, there are at least one-and-a-half good ones. Paltrow, Damon and Winslet are especially good, and the movie would’ve benefited from streamlining a bit, losing some lame side characters, and focusing on the good stuff. It feels a bit much at times.
The last sequence in the movie is one of its best. It sort of makes up for some of the sloppier stuff in the second half, and ends the film on a truly ominous note.
Soderbergh has been saying that he is in his final days as a director. After a couple of more films, he plans to become a painter. If he does, I bet he’ll be using Purex every time he borrows a brush. He’s got to be a little paranoid after making Contagion.