Dead Men Don’t Cough

September 14, 2011

Multiple Pages
Dead Men Don’t Cough

Ever since Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow started her website Goop.com to let people know about all the expensive stuff she owns, many have wanted to see her portray, say, a corpse who gets the top of her skull sawed off by coroners trying to figure out what brain-rotting disease killed her. And Gwyneth, I’m happy to say, is terrific as Patient Zero in Contagion, which is being marketed as a vast thriller about a global viral epidemic. I definitely got my money’s worth from the Paltrow head-hacking scene.

The first half, in which several of Contagion’s eight Oscar nominees (Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, and Elliott Gould) drop dead from a new southeast Chinese germ transmitted merely by contact, is almost as creepy as promised. You’ll want to watch Contagion through a couple of eyeholes in a large upside-down plastic garbage bag. Granted, that doesn’t sound comfortable, but the alternative is touching things that thousands of other moviegoers have touched.

Should you want to go see Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion? Hard to say. It’s informative enough that Cameron Diaz’s Bad Teacher could reasonably justify showing the DVD to her middle-school biology class while she napped away a hangover.

“You’ll want to watch Contagion through a couple of eyeholes in a large upside-down plastic garbage bag.”

The only sensationalized scientific aspect is that it leaves out the good news that lethal germs rapidly evolve (usually) to be milder because there’s no Darwinian profit in killing one’s host. Dead men don’t cough. (The main exceptions are diseases spread by insects, such as malaria.) The horrendous Spanish flu of 1918 evolved malevolently perhaps because the sickest soldiers, rather than stay home alone as ill civilians do, were instead packed on trains to huge military hospitals.

Indeed, Contagion is so hyper-responsible that the bad guy is an alternative-medicine blogger played by Law. (You can tell he’s evil because he has crooked English teeth.) Contagion’s political message is: When somebody tells you, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” trust him.

Critics are raving about how Soderbergh and screenwriter Larry Z. Burns dispense with all those timeworn Hollywood tricks such as action, suspense, plot, emotion, and characters you care about. Who needs all that?

Soderbergh evidently does, because after Paltrow’s autopsy, momentum dissipates as Contagion is revealed to be a half-vast non-thriller. Overall, Contagion isn’t bad, but in the same amount of time you could watch an episode of House M.D. and a NOVA documentary about bird flu and be more entertained and enlightened.

How would daily life change due to a colossal epidemic spread by touch? Soderbergh appears paralyzed by a belated realization that the necessary “social distancing” would make survivors act in ways bad for engaging moviemaking. The healthy would don surgical masks, sit far apart, and spend even more hours on the Internet. But what’s the point of hiring eight Oscar nominees to cover their famous faces while exchanging text messages? So the leads behave as if there is no epidemic, which saps interest.

Nor are issues debated, such as shutting down travel. The hero of 1918’s flu epidemic was American Samoa’s governor, who wouldn’t let any ships land. Good idea or not today?

Soderbergh has directed 22 movies in the 22 years since his Sex, Lies, and Videotape. In contrast, the Coen Brothers have made 15 films in 27 years. (And like the Winkelvoss twins in The Social Network, there are two of them.) Soderbergh peaked in 2000-2001 with Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Ocean’s Eleven but has dallied eccentrically since. Structurally, Contagion most resembles Traffic, but Soderbergh adapted that from a six-hour British miniseries, so he was working with other people’s ideas.

Soderbergh tries to combine Stanley Kubrick’s intelligence, cold-bloodedness, and stylistic versatility with Woody Allen’s economy of time and money. “I haven’t seen a great benefit in my own work in agonizing over things,” he rationalizes. He should note that Allen’s delightful Midnight in Paris cost about three times as much as his many more forgettable flicks.

Contagion is a weirdly lazy movie. For instance, Soderbergh flashes on-screen the population of each new fever spot Contagion depicts—Hong Kong: 2.1 million; San Francisco: 3.1 million—but rather than look them up on Wikipedia, several of these numbers are simply made up.

Contagion’s second half is remarkably lacking in incident. The main interest comes when the residents of Damon’s upscale Minneapolis suburb loose anarchy upon each other. As critic Manohla Dargis explains in The New York Times, “Once it may have been hard to buy the swift collapse of order that is made palpably real in Contagion, if Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath had not already set the stage.”

But then the Minneapolitans stop looting. Why?

Why not? The filmmakers are busy men who can’t sit around thinking up explanations for you lowly ticket-buyers.


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