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Celebrity obsession turns sick in ‘Antiviral’

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Syd Caleb Landry Jones

Hannah Sarah Gadon

Dorian Nicholas Campbell

Dr. Abendroth Malcolm McDowell

Mira Wendy Crewson

Arvid Joe Pingue

IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg. Running time: 107 minutes. No MPAA rating (brief medical procedures). Opening Friday at the Patio Theater, 6008 W. Irving Park.

Updated: May 20, 2013 6:07AM

How sick can fans of a celebrity get? Very, according to “Antiviral.” For his first feature, Canadian filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg expands his 8-minute sci-fi short “Broken Tulips” (2008) into a near-future corporate thriller. The son of director David Cronenberg, he adopts one of his father’s signature themes: horror injected with social commentary.

Both morbid and mordant, “Antiviral” imagines a celebrity culture that has metastasized. Fans go to slick clinics for injections of celebrities’ viruses, and stand in line at deli meat counters to buy “cell steaks” grown from celebrity tissue. Yuck.

“More than perfect. More than human,” is patter that Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) plies at The Lucas Clinic. He is selling clients a viral souvenir of Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), the blond superstar currently pastered on billboards, magazine covers and entertainment news shows. “Her eyes seem to reach right beneath your skin and touch your organs,” he rhapsodizes. For a price, you can get your own copy of her herpes virus. “If she kissed you, it’d be on the left side,” Sly purrs. A star-crossed customer pays for a dose — injected under his left lip — to feel closer to his idol.

Meanwhile, Syd secretly injects himself with Lucas Clinic inventory. At home, he tampers with these copyrighted viruses by using an old-model device he also took home from work. He then resells the celeb diseases to a black marketeer in the back room of Astral Bodies Meat Shop.

When Geist gets terribly sick, so does Syd. The Lucas Clinic is sabotaged by Vole & Tesser, a feral competitor. Routine corporate treachery ensues. Thugs in haute couture turn up. The androgynous and soft-spoken Syd, who could pass as the freckled child of Tilda Swinton, lacks the ultrasonic scream that weaponized Jones’ character Banshee in “X-Men: First Class.”

Panic about pop culture is not new. Yet “Antiviral” finds a novel angle of attack. Pandering to mass pathology, Syd’s boss, Dorian Lucas (Nicholas Campbell), philosophizes: “Celebrity is not an accomplishment. Not at all. It’s more like a collaboration that we choose to take part in. Celebrities are not people. They’re group hallucinations.”

Politically, the critique sounds reactionary. A pox on consumers and capitalists alike, Cronenberg implies.

If extreme closeups of hypodermics piercing skin make you queasy, “Antiviral” may not be for you. But for your dog, would could consider a dose of ringworm from Hannah Geist’s own celeb canine?

Bill Stamets is a locally based free-lance writer.

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