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Film review: Don't wash your hands of 'Contagion'

September 13, 2011
  • In this image released by Warner Bros. Pictures, Anna Jacoby-Heron, left, and Matt Damon are shown in a scene from the film "Contagion."
(AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Claudette Barius)

No doubt about it, virus movies are a tough sell.  

I'm not talking about action movies where the bad guy threatens to unleash a deadly virus and the hero has to stop him by riding a motorcycle and causing explosions.  

I'm talking about movies that actually take a look at a virus and its effects on society. Watching people get sick is not exciting, watching their families cope with loss is not fun, and merely thinking about a deadly virus in unpleasant.  

The only way to get people interested in a virus movie is to tell a compelling story about what the virus brings out in people. Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion" does that to a degree, at least to the point where you'll have a more positive reaction than just saying "yuck" all the time.  

The film has a lot of storylines going on all at once. Matt Damon plays a loving father whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and son are among the virus's first victims.

 His story is the one you'll probably find most relatable and therefore disturbing. He's a civilian, not a person who deals with viruses professionally. When the virus takes his family away and his life is turned upside down, you'll have no choice but to picture him as a friend, a neighbor, or even yourself.  

Laurence Fishburne is a Center for Disease Control official who investigates and analyzes the virus (it's a combination of bat and swine flu). He's every bit the dedicated professional, exactly what you'd expect from a Fishburne performance. But he keeps letting his heart get in the way of his objectivity. He eventually slips up, if you can call saving lives a slip-up.  

Marion Cotillard is a World Health Organization official who travels to Hong Kong to investigate the source of the virus. She gets kidnapped by some supposed allies who we're led to believe are out to whitewash their country's image It turns out their motives aren't so evil, but they're still playing a dangerous game.  

Kate Winslet is a worker for the CDC, a colleague of the Fishburne character. She travels to Minnesota to investigate the American cause of the virus. Her storyline is much like Cotillard's minus the kidnapping. Winslet is one of the most talented actresses in the world, I wish the movie had found something more interesting for her to do.  

Jude Law is a health blogger who acts like a smug loudmouth at every opportunity. He's in bed with a pharmaceutical company and makes millions lending his "humble outsider" endorsement to their product. All the characters who die horrible deaths in this movie and he makes it a good long while.  

Other characters include Bryan Cranston as a Homeland Security official, Elliot Gould as a scientist, Sanaa Lathan as another scientist, and the always valuable John Hawkes as a janitor friend of Fishburne's.  In addition, there are scenes of riots and related panicking that are not character-driven.  Juggling so many storylines isn't good for the movie, it's too easy to forget some of them when they're not shown for a while.  The Cotillard storyline in particular, while otherwise engaging, suffers from losing its audience after a long absence.  

If I had been in charge of "Contagion," I would have dropped the Winslet character entirely, trimmed one of the scientists, and had Law meet his comeuppance around the halfway mark.  

That said, "Contagion" is a decent film with competent acting, directing, writing, and editing. I'm willing to call it a good movie, but it's not one I'd like to see again anytime soon.  



Two and a Half Stars out of Five.



"Contagion" is rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language.  Its running time is 105 minutes.



Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.  

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