Traffic ( 2000)
Steven Soderberg: Solaris, Oceanís Eleven, Erin Broccoli, Schizopolis, Sex Lies and Videotape
Weíll get to Benicio del Toro in a minute. For now, letís just say this was above average for Hollywood, but nothing special. Of course there was good acting from tragicomic lawmen to insane assassins to drugged-out daughters and, of course, en fuego Spanish women. A movie can never have too many Spanish women, I always say. Even Michael "if you can't be [a Spanish woman], marry one" Douglas is tolerable as his usual between heart-attacks character. It's just minor things like screenplay and direction that had some glaring dips in quality and believability. The moralizing reminded me of the beat down we got in American Beauty. I don't know whether they want me to be more or less existential, and frankly, I don't care. On a personal level, Soderberg is weak because he borrows too narrowly and heavily from Scarface, The Player and the excellent Frontline documentary on the drug war, which may have actually even been called Traffic. In fact, there's little in this movie that isn't directly lifted from these three other works. Borrowing is fine, but if the sources are this painfully obvious, then it's probably because you haven't added enough to it to make it a unique work.
The film was a lot like The Player, not only in terms of pace, feel and plot development, but also in the gradual revealing and metamorphosis of characters. Compare the Zeta-Jones character with Tim Robbins in The Player. At first innocent, we gradually see the character become more and more an active participant until finally, the transformation is complete. Scarface fanatics will cheer the return of Al Paccinoís sidekick as the drug importer. They will also want to compare the troubled, young assasin with the enigmatic Columbian in Scarface. Gentlemen prefer bombs. Also compare the telephone conversation toward the end with that between Paccino and the Columbian drug lord on the subject of betrayal. The tone of impending retribution is identical.
On the down side, das film was more cluttered than a German appartment. It just tries to get too many points across (again moralizing).1 For example, the scene with the tourists and their stolen car was gratuitous and forced.2 The plot has too many implausible or inferior elements (i.e. people doing and saying things that they just wouldnít have). And while I applaud the focus on drug use and treatment options, this sub-plot should have been trimmed by ten minutes. The speech on why black people sell drugs (which I'm not sure if it's meant to be taken at face value) was more like an apology to the black community than sincere philosophical dabbling. I mean, let's face it, the movie clearly hinted that it might be undesirable for a young, rich white girl to get f$#@!d by a black drug dealer in Harlem. Well, just wait'll I tell Al Sharpton about this... [skip to next paragraph if you haven't seen the film] Soderbug's worst crime of all was when he squanders the intriguing assasin character. Even a fifteen-year old would know a more intricate or historically-rooted assassination scheme (like In the Line of Fire or Godfather III) would have been better. This would have obviated the "I wonít do it, Iím pregnant" sequence, which sucked for reasons too numerous to go into here. Ooooh, the cocaine is the doll. The worms are the spice. Dude. Shut up.
With great films, I donít have to go on about these little details. In fact, Iím starting to get tired of these could have been great movies, which force me to spend all this time explaining their flaws. Now speaking of flaws, as far as Iím concerned, Benicio del Toro doesnít have any. From the moment I saw him in The Usual Suspects, nothing would ever be the same. And they haven't gone back still. I'm just waiting for him to get a lead role in a really good film.
1 "The film shows, it doesn't argue. It convinces by the sensitivity and accuracy of its observation, not by heavy signals to the audience to think this, that, or the other."
ó Geoffrey Nowell-Smith on Michaelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (1961)
2 "If it isn't Clooney's bare ass or his glistening sweat, it's the tear rolling strategically down his nose ó all of which seem part of an Oscar bid."
ó Jonathan Rosenbaum on Steven Soderger's Solaris (2002)
Exclusive photo of Steven Soderberg just after winning his Academy Award.