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‘Antivirus’ delves into obsession with celebrity

In a future that could be happening right now, overzealous fans will pay to be infected with illnesses “farmed” from sick celebrities. Does your idol have a cold sore on her beautiful pouty lips? Get your injection of the infection right where it would hit you if you shared a kiss with her.

Was a concert canceled because the singer had the flu? For a price, he’ll share that flu with you.

That’s the premise of director Brandon Cronenberg’s intellectually intriguing “Antiviral,” a creepy commentary on America’s 21st century obsession with fame. It opens Friday in the Screening Room Cinema Cafe (3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst) with showings at 9:15 p.m. Friday, Saturday, April 26 and 27; and 7:15 p.m. Wednesday and next Thursday.

Caleb Landry Jones stars as Cronenberg’s antihero, Syd March, an unethical employee of the Lucas Clinic who swipes celebrity sicknesses by infecting himself, deep-swabbing his sinuses and selling the cultures illegally.

The pasty Jones practically melts into his stark white-on-white surroundings, which give a clinical air of respectability to the company’s sickening trade. With his red hair pulled into a tight knot, his European-style suit and his smooth command of the company line – an ironic spiel about the stars’ “perfection,” even though it is sickness they are selling – Syd embodies his times.

And, when he steals an unknown virus that is killing one of the company’s biggest stars, he literally becomes the disease that is infecting society at large.

But as the movie digs in, the joyless performances keep the audience at arm’s length, and the passion that drives this celebrity-obsessed culture never leaves the screen.

A kind of blue-chill hangs over the film, and its characters. When a corporate leader is challenged about exploiting the stars and the mania that surrounds them, he coolly responds, “Celebrities are not people. They’re group hallucinations.” The fact that his customers want to have “biological communion” with them is a natural outgrowth of those powerful imaginary connections.

But we never feel them. Syd is not likable, and watching an unlikable character become violently, hideously ill does not draw us closer.

No, the story of Syd the Sick is no reason to see “Antiviral.”

On the other hand, the movie could be an interesting starting point for discussions on modern fame, the celebrity of the dead – Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson – and the human need for physical connection to those it worships, from churchgoers who bowed before the bones of saints to rock fans elbowing each other for a sweat-soaked towel tossed from a stage.

There are also, of course, interesting connections to be drawn between Brandon Cronenberg’s first feature film and the work of his father, director David Cronenberg, who is also prone to writing his stories in blood.

As a colleague said, it makes you wonder what the bedtime stories were like in that household.


One and a half stars

Starring: Caleb Landry Jones and Malcolm McDowell

Director: Brendon Cronenberg

Running time: 108 minutes

Rating: Unrated, but PG-13 equivalent for gore, sexual themes and violent content.

The Lowdown: When a young technician at a company that sells celebrity illnesses infects himself with a virus that kills its star donor, he begins a desperate quest to find its cause and a cure.