Contagion

September 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law
Directed by:  Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”)
Written by:  Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”)

Once a year or so, a national news program will trot out one of those gross-out ratings-grabber stories about just how dirty and germ-filled your workplace is. The reporter will take cotton swabs and run them across objects officemates unconsciously touch like doorknobs, copy machines and keyboards. Back at the laboratory, the Petri dishes invariably explode into a horror show of nasty germs that make you shudder at the thought of opening a door and eating a sandwich without dousing your hands in gallons of sanitizer. Who wants to catch Scarlet fever from simply grabbing the handle on the break room fridge?

In “Contagion,” the new film from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”), the ickiness of passing germs around willy-nilly by touch turns deadly when a new virus emerges causing international pandemonium. Before anyone knows what’s going on, the virus has already gone global by way of carriers like the coughing man on the bus who grabs every pole and handrail before he comes to his stop, the sick kid leaving a snot smear on the door as he leaves school, and “patient zero” playing poker at the casino and passing infected chips around the table.

Here, “patient zero” is Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), an American businesswoman who brings the virus to the U.S. from Hong Kong. Returning home to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and her young son, Beth kicks off a chain reaction of infection in her hometown of Minneapolis (as well as Chicago, by way of a quickie extra-marital fling on the way home). The outbreak attracts the attention of the Centers for Disease Control, led by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) as well as that of inflammatory blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). Cheever dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to track down everyone exposed to the virus in the states while Krumwiede pokes and prods and generally cries “government/pharmaceutical conspiracy!” at every turn.  The globe-trotting narrative works well in the character-heavy plot, which includes a World Health Organization doctor (Marion Cotillard) sent to trace the origin of the virus and scientists (Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, Demetri Martin) charged with developing a vaccine. Mitch and his desire to protect his daughter as society crumbles around them stays at the center of the chilling story.

Soderbergh’s deft direction of a sprawling cast peppered with Oscar winners and nominees feels breezy and effortless, even when the story spirals into the darkness and questions what an event like this would bring to the real world. The only element that rings false is Law’s provocative celebrity blogger character, which is a clear attempt to modernize the old “intrepid reporter” archetype the rise of internet journalism has rendered obsolete. Fortunately, the rest of the film is rooted firmly enough in reality to make you thoroughly wash your hands afterward, and maybe turn your head in mild panic when someone coughs in a crowded room.

The Informant!

September 18, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula and Joel McHale
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven”)
Written by: Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”)

There’s only so much a dark comedy can get away with when it’s trying to be satirical. If a filmmaker is not careful, it can go over the edge and become just too goofy to be believable. Think about directors Joel and Ethan Coen. They got it right with “Burn After Reading,” but stumbled into something foolish with “The Ladykillers.” If the make-up of a film in this genre is off by a few degrees, things can get quite messy.

While “The Informant!” is advertising itself as a “true” story, director Steven Soderbergh seems to find a hard time in drawing a line between the completely ridiculous and the genuine moments of dry comedy and drama in what becomes his version of a cinematic three-ring circus.

The star under Soderbergh’s big top is actor Matt Damon, who has worked with the director in the “Ocean’s” trilogy and in the second part of his Che Guevara biopic of last year. In “The Informant!,” which is adapted from the 2000 book of the same name (sans exclamation point) by former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald, Damon plays Mark Whitacre, an agra-business executive who becomes a whistleblower for the FBI when his company is caught up in a price-fixing scheme.

Playing out more like a character study of someone Eichenwald described in his book as a manic-depressive, it’s an interesting choice in tone that Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) decide to take. All the ingredients are there for something more straight-laced, but Soderbergh and Burns chose Mark’s eccentric personality and turn him into someone about as cartoonish as Inspector Gadget or Maxwell Smart.

Throughout the film, we hear Mark’s random inner monologue drive his behavior as he continually lies to FBI agents (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale play the main ones here) and changes his story about the criminal practices of his Fortune 500 company. Nicolas Cage’s character used the same type of narration in Gore Verbinski’s underappreciated 2005 film “The Weather Man,” but in “The Informant!” Damon’s dialect feels more unconscious and disconnected from reality.

Maybe that’s the point of it all, but the tone works against the film especially when the story isn’t as off-the-wall as Soderbergh would like you to believe. Sure, this specific white collar crime back in the 90s, was strange, but there are also parts of the story that read like a financial report. What’s so humorous about price-fixing anyway? Without a character like Mark, who is amped up by a confident performance by Damon, “The Informant!” is just another tale of corporate greed. What’s next, a Bernie Madoff musical?