Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sick Day

Trusty film sidekick Anne and I have had a running joke in recent weeks. On the days or nights when we would go to the theater, we would inevitably see a trailer for the new Steven Soderbergh thriller Contagion. No matter how many times we came across it, our thoughts were the same: "It's the film that stars EVERYONE!" This isn't a generalization on our parts, either; besides the big-name stars like Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard and Laurence Fishburne, the trailer alone was full of recognizable actors from Just Shoot Me's Enrico Colantoni to Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston to Winter's Bone's Acadamy Award nominee John Hawkes. Despite the topical deadly virus story being sold, it was obvious in just under three minutes what the problem with Contagion would be, as the only reason so many big names actors would be rolled out was to camouflage a story that itself was not worth the paper on which it was written. Still, it had an enormously successful opening weekend, and you just can't ignore a film with such a huge pedigree behind it. While Anne hung back in the Reel Cave with a plate of fruit and a looping BSG marathon running, I braved the crowds and elements to find out whether Contagion was SARS come to invade our cinema or a mere throat bug.

Rule #1 of surviving a virus outbreak: avoid hospitals
While returning home from a business trip to China, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes down with what she and everyone else assumes is jet lag. The next day, when she collapses at home, a visit to the hospital eventually confirms that it is not jet lag, but an advanced variation on bird flu that has contaminated her body. Highly infectious, this soon becomes a global epidemic, with cities all over the world suffering the deadly effects of this new disease. The Center for Disease Control, led by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne), attempt to isolate, contain and cure the outbreak, and the Department of Homeland Security is worried that the virus is the product of a terrorist attack. The race is on to save humanity as a whole, but the question is not whether the mysteries of the virus will be solved, but how much politics and red tape will prevent that from happening.

The least-sexy plastic suit of all time
This is definitely as talented a group of actors as you can expect to find attached to any movie title. With legitimate stars like Damon, Kate Winslet et al, you expect that they'll be at the top of their game. This is true in almost every instance, but the problem with Contagion is that the characters these big stars are hired to play are barely people at all, only suits and skirts designed to fulfill narrative obligations. Each person barely display more than one motivation, and often if they change their minds it is in the most inane way possible. For all the hard work Damon and Fishburne pour into their performances, their characters are remarkably one-noted and interesting only in their intensity. Jude Law taps into his asshole quotient nicely, though his independent reporter making a name (and more than a few bucks) on the back of this epidemic is not a stretch from his usual boring roles. I've only ever liked Law in Sherlock Holmes, and I think he needs to work across from superior actors to force him to raise his game to their level. That isn't present here, and he never really shares the screen with the more talented members of the cast. Paltrow and Winslet are completely wasted in bit parts with no lasting impact on the main story, and I was speaking of Cotillard's character when I was complaining of inane character choices. Some of the smaller roles actually work out well, as Colantoni, Cranston, Hawkes and Elliott Gould do some good in a small amount of time. While there are several talented actors in this film, the best character belonged to somebody you may not recognize, as Jennifer Ehle runs away from the pack as a risk-taking lab doctor who kicks ass in just about every imaginable way.

As if things weren't bad enough, Winslet just learned about the Netflix price restructuring
Of course, Soderbergh only intended one character to be multifaceted, and that was the virus itself. Learning, mutating, growing; this virus did more than any single character in the entire film could claim to have accomplished. In reality, Soderbergh's story can be simply described as dropping the virus in amongst a group and studying what happened. In this you can see the best of his work, as its obvious he left no stone unturned in determining what would happen if person A became sick but did this, this and this before meeting person B. It's almost like looking back at Soderbergh's earlier career when similar films Traffic and Erin Brockovich were mega-hits following other topical situations, garnering critical acclaim and box office records in the process. Since that time Soderbergh hasn't exactly had a lot of success getting either of those, with only the Oceans 11 remake and its subsequent sequels being the obvious exceptions. If Contagion is successful, that might be more remembered than any actual detail of the story herein.

At the Apocalypse, don't worry! Cell reception will be as strong as ever
That's because unfortunately the story tends to get as flat as its characters. For the entirety of the film we're being told that this is a bad thing, and to make sure you are careful with what you interact, otherwise there could be deadly consequences. Reasonable enough, but that this message goes on uninterrupted for just under two hours gets quite a bit boring, and since the film portrays an extreme case situation this message probably won't be heeded by most viewers anyway. Sure there's a little bit in there about the evils and flaws of man in a time of crisis, but that is almost glossed over under the seemingly mistaken impression that these are not problems we can fix. On top of that, after going the entire film without having it revealed what caused the virus in the first place, the finale features Soderbergh going right back to day one to spell out exactly how it happened, making borderline racist commentary in the process. It was a completely unnecessary gesture, one which was probably suggested by brain dead test audiences or confused studio executives rather than anything resembling a logical process.

Well, what can I say? Jude Law isn't a great actor
In the end, I managed to make it through almost the entire screening without being too bothered by the flaws, which was far better than I had expected. Only the ending and the poor character design were serious bummers, though the story as a whole wasn't helped much otherwise. A merely okay film, this is hardly the stellar Soderbergh many people seem to think it is. Instead of a riveting biological drama, it's a political and societal statement, one barely interesting or even intellectually argued. I'm not sure I can recommend Contagion to anyone to see in the theater, though it certainly deserves more attention than the latest entries in the Scream, Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers franchises, all of which I enjoyed to some degree. Contagion carries itself firmly to the middle of the pack as far as 2011 goes, another forgettable film in a year of epically forgettable films.

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