Saturday, February 18, 2012


The parts of "Contagion" that Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns carefully considered are good enough to offset their occasional baffling missteps, but, all the same, what could have been a monumental work on par with "Traffic" ends up a passable, insightful film that lets up way too early. The subject (international epidemic) and its treatment (personal but withdrawn) seem like they could work better in a mid-range independent vehicle, where Soderbergh would have more freedom to follow the premise to its rightful conclusion. Instead, this is part of the venerable filmmaker's ouevre that tries to pander to the masses, and unfortunately, it seems caught between artistic risk/observation and rushed starfucking/killing.

The film, the structuring of which probably didn't the consideration it deserved, begins with the disheveled looking Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), on the way back home from work abroad in Hong Kong. She seems pretty sick to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon), but he thinks nothing of it. The same goes for people all around the world, from a Hong Kong casino waiter (the same one that Beth visited during her trip) to a model in London, who end up getting very, very ill. This turns out to be a fatal malady, and they are among the first victims of what will become a far-reaching, smothering outbreak.

Soderbergh and Burns decide to view this scenario from many different angles: that of the everyman, of the doctor, of the PR person, of the self-centered blogger. In doing this, they spread "Contagion" farther than it should go, at least in 106 minutes. (Add another part, a la "Che," and they'd be cooking with gas.) There's not enough depth to go around, even/especially considering the wealth of actors involved (Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, John Hawkes, and more) and it seems as though they realized this after it was too late, budget- and time-wise.

A lot of the details are sterling, but much of the overriding emotion seems off. To give an example: Mitch not only loses his wife and step-son, but realizes that she's been cheating on him. Then 26 million other Americans die. Significant, eh? Not enough so that he can't give his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) from his first wife a home-made prom night with her formerly star-crossed lover. Barring one mini-breakdown and a couple of shouty moments, he doesn't seem to have a lot to say or feel, or at least not much that's shown on camera. The lack of care invested here is unsatisfactory. "Contagion" overall feels like it deserved a couple more drafts, to work out kinks and loose ends (and maybe to decide to make some choices like, perhaps, scrapping the synth-y score and not having non-diegetic music), before it was assembled. Because what's good is definitely good enough. B

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