Why Do People Hate Gwyneth Paltrow So Much? Also Contagion is excellent.
By Alex Cranz
Under no circumstance should you go to a screening of Contagion without some sort of anti-bacterial gel or spray. Don’t do it. Halfway through the film you’ll find yourself fidgeting due to the palpable threat of unseen germs and you’ll want that anti-bacterial goop. Take some. Or maybe some wipes. Because when Kate Winslet mentions the number of times a person touches their face each day you’ll want to touch your face all the time and if you don’t use a wipe you’ll have a breakout like a fifteen year old horfing down a load of fast food.
Steven Soderbergh new film puts you right back in 1994 when it seemed like every week there was a new virus threatening to destroy the world with one errant sneeze. Germs are scary. But in a nod to the modern “Trust Us” era the government isn’t behind the disease. They’re the ones desperately trying to solve the problem. There’s no shadowy organization of crazy army guys or a bevy of black oil aliens. No overarching mystery. Just people succumbing to a plague.
There’s a cerebral quality to Soderbergh’s plague film. In a more traditional Hollywood film two characters brought together by improbable circumstances would find love. There’d be a gun fight. The cure would be found in the blood of some simple guy just trying to make it through his day. The bad guy would get his just desserts. Soderbergh teases us with these familiar tropes. He guides on a path that seems inexplicably bound for them, and at the last moment, like a good director with a background in independent cinema, he shows restraint and dials things back.
This is the real world where true love isn’t found on a bus going 55mph and the cure isn’t magically born from the blood of the immune. In the real world death is constant and blind and justice is meted out quite inefficiently and cures are not easy.
And all of that is best exemplified in Jude Law’s blogger character. It’s like a condemnation of lazy Hollywood films and the internet all wrapped up in one morally repugnant character. Any other film he’d be our hero. He’s good-looking and he’s got his finger on the pulse of the problem. But this blogger is a completely selfish bastard. There’s none of the altruism necessary in a hero. As a blogger myself I felt a little stung. Scott Z. Burns’ script clearly has special and strong and virulent feelings for bloggers. It’s hardly subtle, but it’s never so angry that is muddies the message Burns and Soderbergh are attempting to convey with the character.
But what amazes me more than Law’s wonderful little bastard is how egalitarian this film is. Anyone could play the various characters of Contagion. Gwyneth Paltrow, the outbreak monkey, could have just as easily been played by George Clooney, or her onscreen husband, Matt Damon. Gender, which seems to be present in every movie I ever watch just isn’t an issue in this film. These characters have bigger fish to fry. They’re dealing with a virus that’s more deadly and communicable than the Spanish flu man. They don’t have time to get hung up on what is and isn’t appropriate for a lady or a man. It’s like this film was cast in a post feminism world.
Matt Damon plays a father and husband who finds himself struggling to protect his family in a world ravaged by a disease. It’s inferred that he’s a stay at home dad. No one ever comments on it. His masculinity is never called into question and no one marvels at the novelty of his existence. Thank fucking God. Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard’s bad ass disease doctors get the same matter of fact treatment. They’re highly regarded and extensively educated professionals with a job to do. How they dress, how they look, and their sex has nothing to do with it.
As the film progresses we find ourselves spending more and more times with characters only hinted at in trailers. Yes Damon is a major part of this film, and arguably its emotional core. But Laurence Fishburne’s conflicted CDC rep and Jennifer Ehle’s virologist are just as crucial.
Jennifer whose-it you ask?
You know the lady romancing Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice. She’s been having a little bit of a comeback in the last few years in that she’s actually appearing in films again. Here she’s another CDC doctor out to cure the virus before we all go the way of Gwyneth.
Ehle isn’t as familiar to audiences as the rest of the cast and there’s an everywoman quality to her. If you HAVEN’T seen the 1995 Pride and Prejudice ad nauseam because in college your friends all had lady boners for Colin Firth and you aren’t really into plays on the West End then she’s just a side character that slowly becomes one of the primary characters. Her story is only really told in the latter half of the film but she gives her few scenes such weight and poignance that you find yourself remembering them much more fondly than the various abuses that Paltrow suffers.
Which brings me to a question. What is up with all the Gwyneth Paltrow hate? So the lady is a painfully out of touch Hollywood actress who won an Oscar for looking good in drag and making breast binding look whimsical. So what? Oh no she’s organic! And she appears on Glee! And she made Country Strong! I’m over it. She’s got a bit part here and people are comparing it to Janet Leigh in Psycho for obvious reasons, but she’s solid and it never feels like a tease. Unless you’re under a rock you know going in that she dies. It’s less Janet Leigh in Psycho and more Steven Seagal in Executive Decision.
Also she’s a Hollywood actress getting painfully close to forty and she appears sans makeup in this film. Props to her.
And now I’ve turned this review into an essay on why it’s brave for a Hollywood actress to appear sans makeup in a film. Someone sneeze on me. I don’t want to live.