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    Movie Review: Contagion Isn't Exactly Infectious

    Contagion, GWYNETH PALTROW Warner Bros.

    Review in a Hurry: Forget Purell! Germophobes will want to bathe in bleach and move into a bubble after watching this paranoia-inducing pandemic drama. Unnerving imagery and an A-list ensemble boost the disease pic's potency, but Contagion isn't immune to the unfocused, overambitious story, which diminishes its impact.

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    The Bigger Picture: According to showbiz trades, director Steven Soderbergh keeps waffling about plans to retire—first he will, then he won't, then he's just taking a sabbatical to paint. After being exposed to his not-so-killer Contagion, you too may be ambivalent about his filmmaking future.

    Less a thriller than a fascinating study of a global health crisis, the film tracks a mysterious, aggressive virus that infects corporate exec Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) during a Hong Kong business trip. (Paltrow haters, rejoice: She's among the first to succumb and doesn't belt a country song before croaking.)

    The contagion quickly spreads across all borders, fueled by countless human interactions, and explodes into a full-blown pandemic. As the death toll escalates, researchers scramble to decode the mutating biological pathogen, develop a vaccine, and administer it to the freaked-out populace.

    Thankfully, Contagion avoids the silliness and literal monkey business of that '90s Ebola movie Outbreak. Working with cool, muted tones and a driving techno score, Soderbergh credibly, soberly details the world government's response and public's widespread panic: the quarantines, the protests, the looting, the ghostly empty airports, etc. There's even an activist vlogger (a snaggletoothed Jude Law) who develops a huge, um, viral following by disseminating conspiracy theories.

    As Beth's grieving husband, Matt Damon helps ground the film emotionally, and Laurence Fishburne as the CDC director is the medical stalwart throughout. But the script attempts to cover so many characters, countries, and scenarios that Contagion's dramatic engagement suffers from anemia. As people come and go and certain subplots get short shrift, you feel as if you're watching a miniseries edited down to two hours.

    Still, after exiting the theater, you'll vow to never touch anyone—or your own face—ever again.

    The 180—a Second Opinion: The parade of celebs in small roles gets distracting: Wow, Demetri Martin is in this? There's Elliot Gould—what's he been up to? Why don't they give John Hawkes more to do?

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