Contagion, the Stephen Soderbergh–directed film that debuted at the Venice Film Festival last week and hits theaters on Friday, tracks a deadly bird-flu-like virus as it plagues (or kills) a number of very famous people. From the looks of the trailer, the mysterious virus eventually infects most of the globe, but none (as far as we can tell) suffer a pasty, seizure-y death quite like that of Gwyneth Paltrow. Not only does Gwyneth die right there in the trailer, she dies ugly: We’re talking bug-eyes, visible sweat, and maybe a hint of a floppy tongue. (Watch closely, or maybe in slow-mo; You can see it start to wag.) Even more humiliating, her gross Death Face is being used on the movie’s posters to up the “scare factor.” The rest of the all-star cast get Terrified Glamour Shots, and Paltrow is stuck on the bottom left, gasping her last, unpretty breath. It’s all extremely unflattering. But it might also be very smart, yet another stop on the briskly moving “Gwyneth Paltrow has a sense of humor about herself” train.
Real (and obvious) talk: Gwyneth Paltrow is a divisive personality. After starting GOOP, a lifestyle site that offers food, fashion, and wellness tips from her very privileged experience, Paltrow ran into some major image problems; she seemed at best oblivious, at worst condescending to the thousands of people who couldn’t afford $3,000 leather booties or a vacay in San Sebastián. Being best friends with Beyoncé and Jay-Z didn’t help her “real person” cred; releasing a cookbook, then harping on her daily three-hour workouts, just seemed sort of mean. She was too perfect, or too snooty, or both. But Gwyneth took all this to heart, and started hustling for the public’s goodwill: There was that magical (to Vulture’s eyes) turn on Glee, then an unflattering, but semi-“real” role in Country Strong, and let’s not forget the rapping. In December, New York Magazine’s Jessica Pressler wrote that “we love Gwyneth just the way she is,” which is to say, a little pretentious — but that doesn’t seem to be the persona Paltrow is after anymore. She wants to be more wholly likable.
Contagion, in which Gwyneth appears just long enough to get drunk in a casino before biting it, should help her out. For one, Gwyneth really commits to the ugliness in this movie. Her autopsy scene is apparently a thing of disgusting beauty, and she made a point of letting reporters know how game she is for gore: “For the seizure scene, I had to bite on a little Alka-Seltzer and foam at the mouth. It was fun.” Foaming at the mouth is fun! Are these the words of a too-pretty princess? And even if her enthusiasm is calculated, does it matter? Gwyneth lovers can appreciate her willingness to go gross; Gwyneth haters will enjoy watching her be unattractive and die on a very large screen. If she can avoid sending a GOOP update about the myriad digestive and toxin-ridding benefits of homemade Alka-Seltzer, dying early could turn out to be another major public boost for Gwyneth the Lighthearted. And if not, she can always go zombie; she’s got the eye-bulging down cold.