Germaphobes might want to stay away from “Contagion,” the latest thriller from director Steven Soderbergh. This is a film that takes every touch, every interaction from every character and creates a tension-filled, two-hour excursion that might not be easy to watch, but is certainly well-made.
Using an all-star cast to intersect stories in a style similar to “Crash” and “Babe,” Soderbergh’s film begins with an American woman named Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) sitting in an airport lounge coughing.
What seems like a harmless moment is actually the opening stages of a viral outbreak that becomes a worldwide epidemic - a deadly disease takes lives at an alarming rate with doctors and governments desperately scrambling to find a way to contain the problem.
We see this event unfold from many angles.
One subplot follows a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agent (Laurence Fishburne) who dispatches another agent (Kate Winslet) to the Midwest to determine the origins of the outbreak.
Another plot thread follows a World Health Organization agent (Marion Cotillard) dispatched to Hong Kong, the possible genesis of the virus.
Jude Law has a role as a journalist who uses the widespread panic to spread his anti-government propaganda via a blog.
But perhaps the most effective subplot centers on Beth’s husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), who is desperately trying to protect his daughter as the virus, and subsequent civilian panic, spreads at an alarming rate.
There are other familiar faces in the cast - including Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan and John Hawkes - with Soderbergh molding what is essentially a formula thriller that follows the same blueprint as those disaster movies from the 1970s.
To Soderbergh’s credit, it all comes together quite well. “Contagion” builds a suspense and feeling of dread and panic that you don’t see that often in a mainstream film. From the opening sequence in the airport to a flashback final shot where everything comes together, Soderbergh uses the familiarity of the material to his advantage (yes, the comparisons to “Outbreak” are fair), delivering a solid and stylistic piece.
There are moments that don’t work quite as well. The Cotillard subplot disappears for a large part of the film, perhaps because it is one of the weaker plot threads, and some threads have a few hokey and manipulative moments.
But for every misstep we get some really good moments. Damon is very good representing the perceptive of the everyday man, and Jennifer Ehle gives the best performance in “Contagion” as one of the scientists trying to find a cure.
These are the moments when “Contagion” feels most grounded in realism - and is at its most alarming.
DVD dandy of the week
This week’s dandy is “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” (B+) a fascinating documentary that is a must-see for fans of the talk-show host and also the perfect introduction for those who haven’t followed his career as intently.
“Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” follows the comic in the days after he was ousted by NBC as host of “The Tonight Show.”
O’Brien took a buyout that included a clause where he agreed to not appear on television as a host of another program for most of 2010, so he hatched an idea for a 30-city tour across the U.S. and Canada - The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour.
The documentary takes the audience from the inception of the tour all of the way through the final show, providing insight on O’Brien and some candid moments that shed some light on his take on the whole NBC situation.
I’m not really much of a fan of the comic. In fact, I had very little background on O’Brien before seeing this film, other than the basic stuff covered in the mainstream media. Despite my limited knowledge, I found this documentary to be quite fascinating.
Director Rodman Flender really gets deep into the mind of his subject, showing O’Brien’s talent as well as his flaws. O’Brien isn’t always likable here, so I give the comedian credit for pulling the curtain back and allowing the film to capture everything - warts and all.
He is clearly a very sharp-witted and funny person, but he also has a mean streak - sometimes using that wit in a rather cruel manner (his badgering of Jack McBrayer backstage before one show is the film’s signature moment).
“Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” gave me a greater appreciation for O’Brien. Like the recent Joan Rivers documentary, this is that rare film that really puts the audience in the world of the subject matter.
Fans of O’Brien will appreciate the candor. Nonfans might find themselves flipping over to TBS to watch his show after watching this film.
“Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” is rated R for language and is now available on DVD.