Gwyneth Paltrow never looked more gaunt.
The Oscar-winning actress is one of many stars with bit parts in Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Her character picks up a deadly virus in a Hong Kong bar, carries it home to Minnesota, and sparks a pandemic of Biblical proportions.
“I liked having a seizure, biting on a piece of Alka-Seltzer, foaming at the mouth,” said Paltrow at the Venice news conference, back to her glamorous self in straightened blond hair and a peach-colored mini-dress.
During her brief time on screen, Paltrow delivers one of the picture’s stronger performances. Another standout is her spouse in the movie: Matt Damon, who plays a thoughtful dad with first-rate survival instincts.
It helps that their characters are well-written. The same cannot be said for the rest of the cast: Laurence Fishburne, the deputy head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Kate Winslet, a workaholic doctor who risks her life fighting the contagion; Jude Law, a whistle-blowing blogger with his own agenda; and Marion Cotillard, who plays the improbably named Dr. Leonora Orantes, a World Health Organization official trying to get to the disease’s roots.
These cookie-cutter figures act out shallow subplots in the first half. Then, as the disease spreads, Soderbergh’s filmmaking talents kick in: We see monkeys in labs, body bags, mass graves, scientists in orange jumpsuits, and people clawing for the vaccine. The sense of urgency is such that, as the viewer, you feel a sudden urge to wash your hands.
Soderbergh, head shaved and in a natty suit, seemed slightly blase in Venice. He said he planned “a little sabbatical” after shooting his next two films: one about a male stripper, the other about entertainer Liberace.
Here’s hoping the director of “Sex, Lies and Videotape” returns with the verve that led him, in 1989, to become the Cannes Film Festival’s youngest-ever winner. Rating: **1/2.
Psychoanalysis for dummies is what David Cronenberg has in store with his new movie, “A Dangerous Method.”
Starring Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley, and based on real-life events, it’s the story of Carl Jung’s entanglement with a young Russian patient (later one of the world’s first women psychoanalysts), and his rivalry with the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. The subject matter could not be richer. Yet Cronenberg’s treatment of it is, sadly, skin deep.
At a good-humored festival news conference, the 68-year-old director, hair white and spiky, joked that his actors were “messes when I found them” and badly needed mental help. Knightley, in a 1920s-style bob, confessed that as an actress she was “obviously crazy” and “just drew on that.”
The movie starts off attractively, thanks to classy cinematography from Peter Suschitzky. Knightley’s character Sabina Spielrein has a spastic fit in a stagecoach on the way to a Zurich hospital. There, she is greeted by the dashing young Professor Jung, who lives in style thanks to his wealthy (and heavily pregnant) wife.
Jung is also bored, and finds a raison d’etre in Sabine’s ailments: childhood beatings and sexual abuse by her father, self-hatred and a taste for corporal punishment. When she leaves the door open to an affair, he walks right in.
Meanwhile, Jung constantly measures himself up against his mentor, the Vienna-based Freud. He finds Freud’s sexual explanations limiting. Every time the two of them meet, they have a rhetorical tug-of-war.
In filming the story, Cronenberg adopts the wrong tone. He introduces heavy doses of humor (as he did at the news conference), making it hard for the spectator to take the characters, and the movie, seriously.
Freud, played by Viggo Mortensen, comes across as surly and sarcastic. Knightley is admittedly serious, yet she never lets us forget it’s Knightley we’re watching, systematically conveying pain with flared nostrils and a quivering upper lip. Even the outrageously talented Fassbender comes across as just another weak-willed man succumbing to lust.
In short, “A Dangerous Method” is a missed opportunity. The story was first written up as a play by Christopher Hampton, who also scripted Cronenberg’s movie. Now that it’s out in the open, hopefully someone else will come along and handle it better. Rating: **.
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(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)