Worth A Look: 20.19%
Just Average: 12.21%
Pretty Crappy: 10.8%
13 reviews, 135 user ratings
by Jack Sommersby
Another of those highly lauded films where the attempt at art is mistaken as the achievement of it.Steven Soderbergh's Traffic boasts adroit editing, muscular narrative drive, inventive cinematography, and a brilliant performance from Benicio Del Toro. On the flip side, though, it's unaccountably soft at the core, offering up predictable, well-worn, mundane solutions to the complex and increasingly frustrating problems plaguing our nation today. Touted as a raw and uncompromising epic mediation on the United States' all-thumbs approach to its war on drugs, one would expect to find plenty of dramatic power, searing intensity, and scathing sociological resonance and insight to account for all of the critical raves having been so generously bestowed upon it. Yet, aside from a few affecting moments here and there, Traffic winds up delivering very little. It's a film constantly at cross-purposes with itself: the rawness of the subject matter is consistently undermined, and eventually dissipated, by contrivance and too-pat resolutions. Like Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, Traffic boasts more scope than depth, employing a controversial topic to give it an air of importance yet failing to dig as deep as needed to unearth the kind of organic revelations it promises.
"Stuck in 'Traffic'"
To give credit where it's due, I would be violating a cardinal rule of film criticism not to boast of Soderbergh's phenomenal filmmaking technique as it is so majestically displayed here. Taking an admittedly guerilla-style filmmaking approach, Soderbergh, forgoing anything indicative of conventional shooting methods, shot Traffic with a single held-hand camera strapped to his shoulder. Hence, the film has a jagged you-are-there vitality to it that's extremely expressive and persuasive without ever crossing the line into self-adored artiness. In terms of the direction, there's absolutely no fussed-over artifice distancing us from the characters on the screen, and, for the first hour or so, everything we're witnessing seems to be occurring "at the moment"; our involvement in the film is a testament to Soderbergh's evocative film sense where we're asked to play the role of thinking participants rather than popcorn-munching bystanders. Furthermore, functioning as his own cinematographer, Soderbergh has seen fit to give the film's three different stories, which take place in three totally different locales, their own distinctive visual texture -- an identifying hue, so we can identify the locale instantly upon transition without having to rely on a certain architectural landmark or character to appear for us to get our bearings. (Mexico is drenched in tobacco-looking sepia; Cincinnati, blue and green; and San Diego, crystalline sunshine.)
We now move onto the writing and the individual story segments, and this is where most of the praise stops and the panning begins. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan has structured everything so the three interlocking stories are constantly overlapping one another; a climax to one section usually indicates a segue into another. In my book, if the writing is solid and can stand alone, there's no need to consistently distract the audience by pulling our attention from one story to another right when we're settling into the particulars of one. What's the point? More so, where's the enjoyment in this? After a while, after you've become comfortable and responsive to Soderbergh's camerawork, our attention is able to focus more on the rudiments of the various plots. Plot holes and trumped-up contrivances begin to show through, which grow steadily worse as the film progresses.
The most shameless episode is the one centering on Supreme Court Judge Michael Douglas, an Ohio conservative appointed by the president himself as the U.S. drug czar. After beginning to realize that his appointment is more of a joke than an honorable mission, Douglas discovers that his seventeen-year-old, overachieving prep school daughter has not only become addicted to cocaine, but has upgraded to freebasing the stuff as well. Complications of the melodramatic variety invariably ensue:
-- Douglas discovering his daughter's drug addiction soon after his appointment to fight drugs is simply tacky, no matter the preparation behind it.
-- Douglas' scotch-swigging is too blatantly earmarked to correlate with that of his daughter's freebasing.
-- Douglas' locating his daughter (after she escapes from a drug clinic) in the slums of Cincinnati is unconvincing and borrowed from Paul Schrader's atrocious 1978 Hardcore, as is the resolution hinting at her eventual recovery.
-- The daughter winding up in her dealer's bed gives off a very offensive impression in that the filmmakers seem to be implying that she's hit bottom not just because of her having sex with a drug dealer, but a black drug dealer, at that. (The pointless Requiem for a Dream employed the same tactic.)
-- With a limited and virtually unplayable role, poor Michael Douglas' attempt to give a natural performance calls attention to his efforts at doing just that.
-- A righteous speech given by the daughter's boyfriend to Douglas about those in the upper social and economic classes closing their eyes to the plights of the impoverished inner-city ones is howlingly inane being that it's coming from a guy who got his girlfriend hooked on freebasing to have his sexual way with her.
The worst of the three is the San Diego segment, which involves rich-bitch socialite Catherine Zeta-Jones being hounded by a couple of DEA agents, Don Cheadle and Luis Guizman, after her husband Steven Bauer is busted for drug trafficking. Not only does Zeta-Jones seek to reclaim hubby's drug empire to pay off some million-dollar debts to unsavory types, but Cheadle and Guizman must protect their witness essential to the case: a middleman, Miguel Ferrer, who's set to testify with immunity against Bauer. Following objections:
-- Zeta-Jones being oblivious as to how Bauer had been making their fortune strains credibility to the nth degree.
-- The DEA protecting Ferrer is stale stuff and comes off as third-rate NYPD Blue.
-- The fact that the agents would leave the car they're transporting their witness in unprotected and subsequently fail to follow protocol by allowing that witness to walk(!) to the hotel in broad daylight holds nary an iota of plausibility.
-- The additive of a certain substance to a particular person's room service meal has been telegraphed so we can foresee the end result before the characters do.
-- The endless wisecracks and colorful cute talk between the two agents sounds more like written dialogue than natural conversation, calling our attention to the film as such.
-- The last-minute retaliation on Dennis Quaid's sleazy attorney comes out of nowhere and affects us none whatsoever.
-- Lastly, Zeta-Jones gives a terminally vapid, uninteresting performance. She demonstrated a sexy, intuitive grace in the little-seen surfer pic Blue Juice (with Ewan McGregor), but after reaching stardom in The Mask of Zorro her work has lacked personality and variety.
The best episode (though the least satisfying -- crucial details seem to have been left on the cutting room floor) involves Benicio Del Toro as a Mexican cop trying hard to stay clean amid the overwhelming corruption in his homeland. Bribed, manipulated, lied to, Del Toro presents us with a man whose worst enemy is himself: his self-awareness of right and wrong refuses to allow him to wallow knee-deep in corruption, even when that particular route might hold a longer life expectancy for himself.
While far from well-written, this episode gets most of its verve from Del Toro's knockout performance. With a bare minimum of dialogue, he's able to convey a lifetime of regret, and an inkling of hope within his beautifully expressive eyes; he's so incredibly vivid and complex and touching that he makes all of the other characters in Traffic's one-hundred-and-forty-five-minute running time seem like mere puppets.
What ultimately does Traffic in is its refusal to tell us things we don't already know. It comes off as a film designed for people who haven't watched the news or picked up a paper in the last ten to fifteen years, so certain tidbits like Douglas' tour of a border crossing station comes off as moot, because it doesn't appear to serve any purpose but to provide the audience with discouraging figures of the high percentage rate of drug smugglers that are getting through. Add to this TV-quality dramatics, where conflicts are wrapped up and disposed of as easy as last night's leftovers, and you have a handsomely mounted but hopelessly empty epic that huffs and puffs but is unable to breathe the necessary fire its important subject cries out for.Skip it.
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originally posted: 06/14/14 12:28:24
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