The Boston Phoenix January 4-11, 2001

[Movie Reviews]

| reviews & features | by movie | by theater | film specials | hot links |

Rush hour

Soderbergh and Douglas in a Traffic jam

by Peter Keough

Maybe directors like Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh will save Hollywood, or maybe they are just selling out. Outsiders at heart, they nonetheless make movies with the likes of Robin Williams, Sean Connery, Julia Roberts, and Michael Douglas that are an uneasy balancing of submission and subversion. Then again, if these directors score big with a mainstream film, chances are the studios are going to let them do something more independent.

Soderbergh's 1999 The Limey was an original, underrated experiment featuring a terrific and largely overlooked performance from Terence Stamp. After his success last spring with Erin Brockovich, which is now being hyped for the Oscars, Traffic looked like Soderbergh's opportunity to return to his maverick ways. And at first glance, the film seems raw, hip, and trenchant, bubbling with style and savvy. But look again and Traffic may seem merely slick, a cynical film about cynicism that is, in its own way, more conventional than the Julia Roberts vehicle. It operates partly on the principle that if you multiply the number of stereotypical stories, interweave them artfully, use handheld cameras and atmospheric filters, and elicit gritty, authentic performances pepped up by smart dialogue, the result won't seem so formulaic. Well, maybe.

Story #1, shot in scruffy cinéma-vérité with a gold tint, starts in the desert south of the border, where honest Mexican cop Javier Rodríguez (Benicio Del Toro) and partner Manolo (Jacob Vargas) have bagged a van full of coke only to have it impounded by slippery General Salazar (Tomás Milián), who later invites Rodríguez to join him in destroying the Tijuana drug cartel. Story #2 starts in a blue-tinted courtroom in Columbus, Ohio, where Justice Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) puts away one last case before taking up his post as the president's new drug czar in Washington. Little does he know that his teenage daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen), a model student and spoiled brat, is partying with her school-uniformed friends and getting introduced by boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace) to the pleasures of crack cocaine. Story #3 has beaming and pregnant Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones) chatting with her girlfriends at the country club over wine and duck and totally unaware that undercover cops Roy Castro (Luis Guzman) and Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle), who in story #4 are pulling a sting on coke dealer Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), will soon reel in her drug-kingpin husband, David (Alec Roberts), whom she always thought was a respectable San Diego businessman.

You never know about people, do you? Like Requiem for a Dream, Traffic uses slick style to convey the platitude that beneath the façade of respectability, success, and family values lies a void that greed, ambition, and addiction seek to fill. It's the low-rent version of American Beauty. As Soderbergh's glib shots of characters from different tales passing one another like ships in the night suggest, we're all just one off-ramp from the highway to hell.

Based on a 1980s British Channel 4 television series, Traffic deftly compresses its story lines to make you feel you're watching half a dozen episodes at once. What this dazzling mix can't do is disguise the way the Michael Douglas plot line drifts off into a toothless variation of Paul Schrader's Hardcore, or make Zeta-Jones's transformation from vacant trophy wife to tough cookie as convincing as her swordsmanship in The Mask of Zorro. And though Soderbergh knows how to reverse your expectations -- a character introduced as a merciless killer becomes a figure of wretched pity when naked and tortured -- he's not above exploiting them. We haven't come very far from Birth of a Nation when for a white girl utter degradation is being a sex slave for a black stud.

So, should we just say no to Traffic? It's a must-see if only for the sight of Bill Weld holding forth on the drug problem at a DC party, just one of the many pedantic soundbites ("Larry King" moments, as Cheadle's character points out) scattered throughout. That and perhaps the finest ensemble cast of the year make Traffic, if not the high point of Steven Soderbergh's career, at least worth the trip.

[Movies Footer]