Apr 042012

Evanston RoundTable, Sept. 27, 2011

Steven Soderbergh’s movie “Contagion” manages to do for global pandemics what porn does for sex: make it look phony. Not that there aren’t the requisite scenes of foaming corpses, dead monkeys, scientists looking with alarm at computer screens with rotating polyhedrons and pathologists in lab coats performing autopsies (in this case on Gwyenth Paltrow, alas) and saying things like: “Should I call someone?” “Call everyone!”

One shouldn’t joke about this. Apparently we’re only a bat-infecting-a-pig away from another virus along the lines of the Spanish Flu of 1918, which, one character ominously tells another, killed 1 percent of the population – of the world. We are also told that people touch their faces up to three thousand times a day, and I for one believe it, because when Paltrow began convulsing I covered my eyes, which I haven’t done since the Alien jumped out of John Hurt’s stomach.

Some of this is entertaining stuff, a lot of it is educational (supposedly Soderbergh engaged experts to assure authenticity) and some of it is scary. But it doesn’t add up to a coherent movie.

The plot is simple enough: an epidemic rages across the globe killing millions – how can we stop it? Soderbergh, the well-regarded director of “Erin Brockovich,” “Traffic” and several dozen other feature films, has assembled a fine cast: Paltrow as the aforementioned originator of the pandemic (next time, sweetie, skip the moo shu pork), Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Elliot Gould, Marion Cotillard and Jennifer Ehle. They’re all terrific.

And that’s one of the problems: too many famed performers, too many acting styles, too much to look at. A star cast can get in the way of a story the same way too many big-name musicians can produce a mediocre string quartet or super group rock band. Except for Damon, who is subsumed in his role as a grieving husband, the actors trump the characters. See Jude Law smirking his way through a television interview. Whoa, check out Paltrow’s skull being peeled away. And Cotillard, what a hottie! Either this kind of movie is serious, as this one presumes to be, or it is Hollywood. Or, worse yet, it is “serious Hollywood.” And that’s what we have here.

Still, lots of movies survive a big name cast. More problematic is the cohesion. “Contagion” is never quite sure of its approach. It lurches from God’s eye overview to serious documentary to pulp sidebar stories, some of which, like Jude Law’s mendacious blogger or Cotillard’s kidnappers, belong in a trashy B movie.

And while there’s a certain tension in the details, trying to figure out How We Will Survive, everyone knows there’ll be a happy ending, insofar as the world must, Hollywood-style, go on.

Still, there are some affecting scenes. The movie begins with “Day 2,” and it’s not until the last minute that we find out what happened on “Day 1” to set the virus on its course. This little flashback at the end, almost a coda, is the scariest scene in the movie, because, finally, we see something true: how easily it can happen.

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