Archive for January 5, 2001

Traffic

January 5, 2001

Well-acted and smoothly directed, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is nonetheless the most wildly overpraised, overnominated movie since Saving Private Ryan. Has this really been such a substandard year that a decent but flat piece of work like Traffic is airlifted to the top of the crap heap? Soderbergh, working from a speechy script by Stephen Gaghan, wants to give us a panoramic, crackling view of the drug trade — the users, the dealers, the enforcers, all caught in a self-perpetuating loop of need, greed, and ignorance. What he ends up with, I’m afraid, is very much like two and a half episodes of Miami Vice edited together and color-coded.

The color-coding is part of Soderbergh’s stylistic agenda this time out. Scenes in Mexico, featuring honest cop Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), are a washed-out grainy yellow, sleepy and left out in the sun. Scenes dealing with Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the pregnant and clueless wife of a busted druglord (Steven Bauer), unfold in more naturalistic light, the better for the camera to dote on Zeta-Jones’ luminous skin tones (she was actually pregnant during filming). Scenes involving newly anointed drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), whose 16-year-old daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is in a free-fall of freebase and sex, comprise the bluest, chilliest footage since David Cronenberg’s Crash.

The name Wakefield, like much else in Traffic, is a bit too obvious (the drug czar wakes up to the reality of the drug problem — get it?). Every character is there to preach, or to learn, the movie’s thesis that the “war on drugs” is a wasteful sham. People praised the film’s bravery in announcing this, as if cultural and political critics hadn’t been saying it for decades (even National Review ran a cover story conceding the point). Traffic is one of those square-up-the-middle tracts that make people think they’re thinking. It’s not likely to face many arguments, and it stacks the deck by having Michael Douglas’ nice white daughter getting high and even, gasp, having sex with black men. (Oddly, Requiem for a Dream also had Jennifer Connolly arriving at the same presumably horrific fate. Message to white parents: Keep your daughters off the drugs and they’ll stay off the black guys.)

This is Benicio Del Toro’s movie, if it’s anyone’s. What little he says is in Spanish, so he sidesteps the stiff dialogue; in an elegant, near-silent performance, he lets us read his disillusionment rather than hearing it at length, as with some of his castmates. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman get some comic friction going as a pair of undercover narcs, but they’re a couple of good actors playing variations on 2,000 other movie cops. Zeta-Jones has some lovely pangs of hurt when her husband is taken away, but her progression to an ice queen รก la Talia Shire in The Godfather Part III is too facile; when she orders someone’s death, we’re not shocked so much by her ferocity as by her abrupt, thinly written shift to Machiavellian evil.

Steven Soderbergh began 2000 with the frisky, rousing Erin Brockovich, and has now ended it with a film much better cast and directed than it deserves. Except for the color-coding (and maybe not even that), he doesn’t do much that hasn’t been done before, by himself or others. Even poor Michael Douglas, except for one quietly effective moment when Wakefield confronts a man about to fuck his daughter (there’s no other word for it), seems pinched and restless, as if he knew he’s being used for his angry-white-male aura and little else. Soderbergh, too, is used for his radical-filmmaker credentials; he makes a very conventional melodrama feel ragged and independent. He does more for Traffic than it does for him, much like an addict and his dealer, and by the end you sense Soderbergh burning out. His final image is of a children’s baseball game, which elsewhere might be a calming, enigmatic visual, but here it whacks you over the head: See, the national pastime — just like drugs! And the players get younger every year! Maybe Soderbergh has experimented long enough with the drug of Hollywood; he’s starting to like it, and need it, too much.