A cough here; a sneeze there — ‘Contagion’ movie is as deep as a piece of Kleenex

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

By the time I was done with “Contagion” — or, perhaps, by the time “Contagion” was done with me — all I wanted was good shower.

And maybe a gallon of hand sanitizer.

As you may have guessed from the title, “Contagion” is about a contagious disease. A virus, you might say. Or a plague, to get biblical about it.

Tag, you’re it. And now you’re dead.

It begins with a fatal bowl of peanuts, scarfed up at the Hong Kong airport by business woman — and, we later, learn, adulteress — Gwyneth Paltrow.

See what happens when you put your career and your own slutty sexuality before your family?

Well, director Stephen Soderbergh doesn’t dwell on the implied moral judgment inflicted on his movie’s first victim. He just shows her back home, sniffly and red-nosed. 48 hours later, she’s a goner, leaving her numb husband, Matt Damon (the film’s emotional lynchpin, terribly underused) to wonder what the heck happened.

Damon, it turns out, isn’t infected. My guess: he’s got Bankable Movie Star Immunity. After a 24-hour-quarantine, he’s sent home, leaving us to wonder, what the heck…?

Given the deadly nature of this whatever-it-is, why doesn’t the hospital keep him around? To test his blood, his DNA, his drool, his something?

But no, Damon goes back to the snowy ‘burbs of Chicago to split his time between grieving and trying to keep his teenage daughter away from her possibly-infected boyfriend (in what may the film’s most unintentionally hilarious scene, Damon straddles the pair when a snow-angel outing turns romantic).

Anyway, with Damon grounded, enter a small squadron of Oscar winners and nominees: Laurence Fishburne as the head of the CDC in Atlanta (yes, Emory and some extras get their 15-second close-up); Kate Winslett and Marion Cotillard as selfless health-care specialists; Jude Law as a selfish Julian Assange-like journalist, Wiki-leaking for his own personal gain.

As he did with his Oscar-winning “Traffic” (a film I still dislike), Soderbergh jumps around several storylines, as if breadth could make up for depth.

Because, trust me, “Contagion” is about as deep as a piece of Kleenex. Oh, yes, it’s alarmingly efficient,. At one point, I fake-sneezed — loudly — just to see if anyone in the theatre would flinch. The guy behind me did. Actually, he moved over a seat.

However, the film is emotionally empty. I was as invested in the carcass of some poor lab monkey as I was in what happened to any of the stars.

Why cast important actors in nothing roles unless you’re re-making “The Towering Inferno” or some other “70s disaster flick?

Bells and whistles aside, “Contagion” begins with a cough and ends with a whimper.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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