Cough! Cough!

While the film has too many subplots, 'Contagion' works as a virus-outbreak thriller

After the deadly virus thriller Contagion, Gwyneth Paltrow will surely have the power to clear a room whenever she coughs. The sound of anything raspy leaving her mouth will cause large, grown men to scatter as if somebody dropped a rabid weasel with a bomb strapped to its ass.

In director Steven Soderbergh's latest, Paltrow plays Beth, a world traveler who picks the wrong time to visit Hong Kong, becoming Patient 1 in a virus epidemic that will kill many—quickly. Her cough at the beginning of the film says, "I am seriously screwed! Robitussin won't clear up this sucker!"

Let it also be said that Paltrow can do a foaming-at-the-mouth seizure like nobody else in the business.

Her cough sets off a chain reaction that has various people touching this and breathing that until the new virus has gone worldwide and caused serious people, like Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), to calmly contemplate the end of a large swath of humanity. Kate Winslet co-stars as Dr. Mears, an eager worker who, perhaps, should've chosen to become a professional golfer rather than somebody trying to trace the origins of a mega-virus.

Matt Damon delivers some seriously good work as Mitch, Beth's husband, a man who is forced to deal with a lot of death mere hours after learning that his wife and kid have the sniffles. (His reaction scenes at the hospital are fine work.) Damon's story arc is one of the film's best.

Not so good are Jude Law as a militant blogger, and Marion Cotillard as a kidnapped doctor. Both of these subplots muddy the waters and slow down the film. The Law subplot is especially confusing; his character is at first portrayed as a maverick, but then he degenerates into some sort of blanket statement about how bloggers are reckless and evil. It feels like he's in the wrong movie—and he has a fake, jagged tooth that is mighty distracting.

The first half of the film shows Soderbergh at his finest. He creates a true sense of dread as the medical situation spirals out of control. The same can't be said for the second half. While it isn't bad, this portion of the film is much hokier that what precedes it. There's a handshake moment involving John Hawkes and Fishburne that is an awkward groaner.

Jennifer Ehle plays a doctor who valiantly experiments on herself to find a vaccine. The portrayal of doctors and the medical community is mostly negative in this film, so perhaps Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns threw in this silly character to balance things out and ensure that their general practitioners don't do bad things to them during their next checkups. Oh, the things that can happen when those latex gloves snap on ...

Fortunately, for every goofy character in the movie, there are at least 1 1/2 good ones. Paltrow, Damon and Winslet are especially enjoyable, though the movie would've benefited from a bit of streamlining. It feels like a bit much at times.

The last sequence in the movie is one of its best. It makes up for some of the sloppier stuff in the second half, and ends the film on a truly ominous note.

Soderbergh has been saying that he is in his final days as a director, and that after another film or two, he plans to become a painter. If he does, I bet he'll be using hand-sanitizer every time he borrows a brush. He's got to be a little paranoid after making Contagion.

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Contagion and Contagion: The IMAX Experience are not showing in any theaters in the area.

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