Traffic (2000, Steven Soderbergh)

!! CAUTION !!

Steven Soderbergh is kind of like that guy in your outer circle who everyone around you talks about a lot and they all think he has really smart things to say and does really interesting things and you hear it so much that you sort of automatically start to agree with all of them and after all he did make two seminal films of the late ’80s and early ’90s (sex, lies and videotape and King of the Hill) but then you actually hear him speak and realize that all his praeching about the Hollywood State of the Union comes up pretty empty given just how conventional and rote and risk-averse his films are, and then you watch the movies themselves and remember he’s a pretty boring director better in theory than in practice and shit I lost my metaphor, I’m like the guy at the party who — oh well, let’s keep going.

No but really, I was looking forward to finally, finally, finally sitting down with Traffic after all these years, having heard so much about it and having been tantalized by trailers and reviews and the fact that it merited a Criterion release and just apparently was a rare instance of a real artistic vision scoring box office and making it to the final rounds of awards season, up to and including an Oscar for Soderbergh himself. But as has happened bizarrely often over the years with films ranging from Requiem for a Dream to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, this turns out to be a moralistic lecture to which a stunningly broad range of adults inexplicably and willingly subjected themselves. It’s a silly Crash-like hodgepodge of bad TV crime drama and psychotic Hays Code hysteria.

The subject: the drug war, the drug trade, drugs, addiction itself, seen through the prism of a gaggle of half-assed characters and convoluted semi-stories. A Mexican cop played by Benecio del Toro takes action against the habitual bloodshed and dominance of a drug cartel. Fine, okay. A rich woman (Catherine Zeta-Jones) “finds out” that her husband was deep in this shit and manages to still bleed the high life out of it after the feds get him, but Don Cheadle is on the case. A little threadbare, but whatever. But then the coup de grace: drug czar Michael Douglas, so far from his concurrent performance in Wonder Boys you can scarcely believe it’s the same dude, runs afoul of the baddies but his impressionable white daughter (Erika Christensen) gets in the thick of a cocaine addiction and, in perfect Lillian Gish fashion, is soon enough off her rocker getting dick and blow from black guys so Douglas can break doors down and look like a badass. There’s dialogue about the War on Drugs being “unwinnable” but the film is disinterested in such futility, instead displaying a hyper-serious moral code that circumvents any thoughtfulness or serious debate. The film’s tone is, indeed, outrageously maudlin from start to finish.

And as if that weren’t enough, it’s just ugly as hell — Soderbergh, acting as his own D.P., shoots each narrative in its own garish and wildly eye-gouging color filter, giving the film a supposedly “gritty” look that’s actually muddy and stylized to the point of being next to intolerable. The early 2000s were an age of bizarrely overzealous color saturation (see also Amelie) and Traffic‘s self-consciously artificial appearance doesn’t help its sense of realism at all, only makes it look cheap and, frankly, as dated as the public service announcements from our collective youth that it variously calls to mind.

The film is based on a British miniseries, so there’s some explanation for the way the characterizations and stories all seem rushed to hyperventilation. As a result of packing so much into a still-weighty 147 minutes, the characters are poorly developed, defined mostly in wisecracks, and as shown later by the equally broad and schmaltzy Contagion, the director doesn’t know how to follow through on the decently intriguing premise with any kind of nuance — you can telegraph everything that happens in advance if you’ve seen more than half a dozen movies. There would be room for a good director to make a deeply serious and morally ambiguous film about the unmistakably complex and dubious U.S. drug war in particular and the accompanying international problems more generally, but this isn’t it. It boxes its ideas into not just Hollywood storytelling tactics but the pandering, sheltered boxes of a primarily privileged, white viewership.

Those are the people who will know when to gasp at the pretty little honors student slash defenseless fawn using gasp Drugs (“Where are they!? Where are the drugs!?” barks Dad at one point while scouring the cabinets), and then bristle at the “corruption” of her virgin soul. At its worst, the Michael Douglas afterschool special part of our story is like some unholy combination of Hardcore (but at least George C. Scott has more than one facial expression) and Requiem, with even less intellectual content to speak of than either. The Zeta-Jones / Cheadle piece is a bit less embarrassing but still comes off as what would typically be a fly-by subplot in a season of a crime drama like NYPD Blue. The tenor and trickery of television circa 1999-2000 is all over this film, along with admittedly some touch of the zeitgeist; Amores Perros tells its mostly unrelated stories similarly and is just as fragmented and confused, despite its reputation, and every movie like this probably owes something to Pulp Fiction with its zigzagging, provocative narrative structure. But everything Traffic manages to do competently in terms of its alarmist message would be done with far more wisdom and imagination by City of God a couple of years later.

As for Benecio del Toro’s third of the pie, it certainly features the most competent acting of the feature — but until I saw the last five minutes of Traffic, which consist of del Toro attempting to look thoughtful as he observes a baseball game at a park that was built as a result of his FBI informing, I never would’ve thought a heavy drama about narcotics trafficking could end with such maudlin, sentimental pap. You almost expect a Kevin Costner voiceover, or a superimposition of Jesus. If you’re going to be tasteless and pander, why not go all the way? Soderbergh got what he wanted anyway: outsized praise for a completely hollow film. Good for him, but yikes.

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