Sunday, September 11, 2011

Contagion

Grade: 69 (B)

Eleven years ago Steven Soderbergh’s masterpiece Traffic took a multi-textured look at the War on Drugs through its non-judgmental depiction of multiple factions of the drug world, from profiteers (Catharine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid) to enemies of the drug trade (Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro). The film came in a brilliant run of artistically and commercially successful films for Soderbergh (Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven), and that film showed Soderbergh’s talent for dealing with a complicated subject and large ensemble cast to deliver a great movie. Soderbergh uses that talent on the less ambitious but still sprawling Contagion, and the film manages to avoid the pitfalls of disease-of-the-week weepies or lame Outbreak-style thrillers because of it.

Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) starts it all. After coming home sick from a business trip, she collapses into a seizure and dies. Beth’s husband Mitch (Matt Damon) doesn’t understand how this could happen. Neither do the doctors. It gets worse: people all over the world are dying. The disease is spreading like a wildfire. Members of the CDC (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle) and World Health Organization (Marion Cotillard) try to figure out the virus before it kills millions, but they can’t move fast enough. And a popular conspiracy-theorist blogger (Jude Law looking as ugly here as he is handsome in reality) spreading rumors about government cover-ups isn’t helping any. At the center of this is Mitch, caring for his daughter in a world crumbling around him.

Soderbergh handles the multiple storylines with a deft hand and in a realistic manner, and Contagion works as a chilling ‘what-if’ story that doesn’t stretch credibility with absurd action finales or over-the-top performances. The actors in minor roles make the most of limited screen-time (Bryan Cranston as a military official, Elliott Gould as a doctor, Paltrow as one of the first victims) while the meatier roles never fall into scenery-chewing or speechifying. Law’s character rants about untrustworthy governments without seeming too crazy (though the prosthetic bad teeth are a bit much) while Winslet and Fishburne handle their jobs well and without melodrama. Best of all are Damon as a father protecting his daughter from a world-gone-mad and Ehle as a dedicated scientist spending day-and-night on the clock trying to find a cure.

Not everything works. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns give most of their characters enough to do, but some feel unnecessary or go on far too long: John Hawkes’ character seems thrown in primarily to give Fishburne another person to look out for and as a way to absolve any guilt; Cotillard’s plotline reaches its logical conclusion halfway through the film but takes a turn that seems to belong in a completely different movie. The addition of these combined with the other characters and plotlines add fat to a film that mostly manages to move along quickly, bringing the film to a sluggish ending as it closes the multiple storylines. The film could easily have been 90 to 95 minutes rather than 106. And after the film reaches a logical emotional conclusion, it saves one final sequence that, while well made, feels unnecessary and a bit too on-the-nose. Still, Contagion is solid entertainment from a great filmmaker, and it takes a hint from Cliff Martinez’s excellent score: it’s frightening, paranoid, and eerily precise.

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