Pack a supply of hand sanitizer but do not distance yourself from "Contagion"

Contagion (2011)
105 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: A -

Have you ever thought about what you touch daily? Door knobs. Bar peanuts. Hotel phones. Bus railings. Elevator buttons. Credit cards. Did you realize that a movie theater is the dirtiest of public places? And yet, that's where you'll be seeing "Contagion," a cautionary tale about widespread disease and social distancing. As Steven Spielberg used a mechanical great white for "Jaws" that forced moviegoers to steer clear of the water, director Steven Soderbergh uses mundane daily life to make us want to build up our immune system in "Contagion." 

It all starts with a cough. "Day 2" is when we first meet Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), looking sick as a dog and talking to her lover over the phone before her flight back home to Chicago from a business retreat in Hong Kong. She claims to just have "jet lag," but after flu symptoms, a seizure, and her hospital death, Beth becomes Patient Zero of an epidemic. Somehow, she has passed the contagion onto an Ukranian model, an Asian casino server, and so on and so forth. Sent to Beth's home Minneapolis by Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control's Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) intends to why how the disease was spread before more die. She tells skeptical medical administrators a statistic that will make you think twice: We touch our face 2 to 3,000 times a day. Her big challenge is setting up quarantine shelters and treating everyone, including Beth's husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), who must put his wife and step-son to rest. Of the World Health Organization, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is sent to Hong Kong to pinpoint the origin of the virus. Immune to the disease, Mitch becomes overprotective of his teenage daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) from coming in contact with her boyfriend. In San Francisco, skeezy, rabble-rousing blogger Alan (Jude Law with bad teeth) tries stealing the spotlight when posting the first web video of the infected dying. He hypes up a cure and blames Cheever and the CDC for keeping an antidote from the public. As infected clusters continue spreading to Tokyo, Chicago, and London, lab researcher Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) tests for a vaccine, which will take months to get approved. 

For an ensemble piece overspread with a top-notch cast, "Contagion" is the upcoming "New Year's Eve" of viral outbreak movies. Scott Z. Burns' matter-of-fact screenplay weighs the importance of certain characters, which sometimes means losing sight of cast members, and never turns anyone into a movie hero, which might turn away the rarest Michael Bay fan. It's hard to jump right in and connect with all of the characters, which are mostly kept at arm's length, but the epidemic takes precedence over all the human drama anyway. 

Paltrow is a good sport to show her unglamorous side, act out a seizure, and have her head undergo a post-mortem exam. Being the contagion's entry point, her presence lingers over the film even after she's gone. Damon's Mitch receives the most emotional investment and sharpest arc. Nearing the breaking point of his grief, Mitch will never know for sure if Beth was faithful or not as he flips through pictures of his wife on her camera. Winslet is excellent as the selfless humanitarian Mears, whose thread compels right to the sobering end. Fishburne is solid as the compassionate Cheever, who tells his girlfriend (Sanaa Lathan) to get out of Chicago before the city is quarantined. Cotillard is strong as always, but once her character gets thrown for a surprise loop that stresses a queasy feeling, there is no real resolution. Ehle is a standout, confidently eloquent and super-smart as the doc that puts it all together ("The wrong pig met up with the wrong bat"). Character actors Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, and Bryan Cranston also turn up in small turns and hit their marks. 

Eerily realistic, tensely riveting, and intelligently written, "Contagion" is a docudrama that exists in a reality once threatened by SARS and the H1N1 swine flu. It never becomes the fully fledged, hysteria-filled apocalyptic horror film that it lazily could have been. Soderbergh acts as his own cinematographer, each scene precisely crafted with a cool efficiency that complements his clinical tone and pathological exposition. Cliff Martinez's thumping, electronic music score keeps the tension taut. By the last reel, "Contagion" circle-backs to "Day 1" to solve the mystery, and it should make one gasp. Now wash your hands!