It’s hard to know what to make of Wolfgang Petersen’s “Outbreak.” If Petersen simply focused on telling a straightforward story about the outbreak of a pandemic and its impact on society’s infrastructure, he would have scored: He’s got a terrific cast, a striking and memorable score, and as he demonstrated in “Das Boot,” he can extract a great deal of suspense from these sort of narrow, urgent narratives and tighten the screws on his audience. But watching the movie, you get the impression that a terrific idea for a serious, sober movie somehow became a veritable parade of uber-Americana bullshit, and no one embodies that better than Dustin Hoffman: I guess he’s supposed to be the anti-authority Everyman fighting the good fight on behalf of the average American here, but Hoffman is completely miscast. Instead of noble, Hoffman’s performance hits all the wrong notes, coming off childish and narcissistic instead of heroic, while he goes around berating everyone around him. He’s tiresome to watch, which is a damn shame because co-star Rene Russo is way more interesting and likable, yet she’s relegated to playing second fiddle to Hoffman’s histrionics. By the time the movie reaches its climax, it’s got a cornucopia of American clichés co-existing on screen including a global pandemic, a love story, a helicopter chase, an evil military plot, bla bla bla you get the idea: There’s too much going on, like no one involved in the development of the movie could agree on what the narrative’s biggest threat could be. So while “Outbreak” has some structural strengths via Petersen’s technical prowess, it’s an unfocused mess of half-baked ideas growing out of a petri dish of lazy, workmanlike studio filmmaking-by-committee that’s adequate and passable at best.
Rating: ★★★ (out of 5)