In a Lonely Place

Soderberghs Traffic, plus Cast Away and The House of Mirth

Becalmed for a decade in a reputation as a highly respected, profoundly unbankable heavyweight of egg-headed film, Steven Soderbergh has suddenly pitched up as a Hollywood entertainer with wise, goofy and soulful things to say about the way we love (Out of Sight) and live (Erin Brockovich) now. Like Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh's new film, Traffic, has social issues aplenty on its mind—prominent among them the web of confusion, sloganeering and special interests that is American drug policy. This is heavy freight for a thriller to carry, but Soderbergh has learned how to give us a good night out at the movies. This densely populated jigsaw puzzle of a policier is also a deft comedy of manners and action that dawdles at regular intervals to dwell lovingly on its characters living their lives, the smaller the better.

Certainly Soderbergh is one of the few working directors with enough wit and panache to make the meticulously plotted, color-coded, dual-structured Trafficfeel more like life than like programmatic whimsy. The movie sways gracefully between two worlds—one supplies, the other consumes—inching them closer and closer together until we see how one hand washes the other. Bathed in a livid ochre light that recalls Alex Cox's overlooked recent film, Highway Patrolman, the movie opens on Mexican scrubland near Tijuana, where two cops, played by Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas, are crowing over a drug bust, only to find themselves upstaged by no less than their country's putative drug czar, General Salazar (Tomas Milian), a wily old snake with a habit of snowing his listeners with flights of fanciful rhetoric—he's a screenwriter's dream of free-falling poetic license. Across the border in Ohio, the light turns a Tory true blue on U.S. drug-czar-to-be Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), as he lectures a hapless lawyer on the fine print of American marijuana laws. Another quick cut and we're in San Diego, where an even juicier bust of a minor trafficker (Miguel Ferrer) conducted by two U.S. agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) leads to the arrest of a wealthy local drug lord, which in turn sets off a chain of rapid scene-shifting that will implicate the two worlds in a bottomless well of public venality and private agony.

Trafficis based on a hit British TV miniseries set along the drug routes from Pakistan to Europe, a scenario that transposes potently to the Americas, where abundant supply from the south feeds a massive demand for narcotics in the north, barely curbed by drug enforcement that staggers from overkill to feeble irrelevance. Soderbergh directs with a more sophisticated touch (he blows up cars in silence) than the series, and a much lighter heart. Like Quentin Tarantino and other youngish Turks of contemporary neo-noir, he gets a kick out of kidding around at moments of high risk. "Shoot him in the head!" yells a heavily pregnant lady-who-lunches (played by a heavily pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones) into her cell phone when the hit man she's employed botches the job. Unlike Tarantino, though, Soderbergh is not just out to goose our bourgeois fastidiousness. He uses comic relief as a disruption, both to lull and prep us for weightier things to come: what becomes of Zeta-Jones' character is no laughing matter. Trafficsometimes waxes preachy: in what may be one ironic symmetry too many carried over from the television series, Wakefield has a teenage daughter (Erika Christensen), a rosy overachiever in a Peter Pan collar whose spare time is spent cruising poor, black neighborhoods with her pal Seth (played by the excellent Topher Grace as a frighteningly smooth and feckless Connecticut preppy) in search of the kind of cumulative highs her enabling former hippie of a mother (Amy Irving) never dreamed of. That, and numerous shots of a stressed-out Wakefield chugging back the hard liquor, plus some broad hints at marital trouble, sets us up for a dissertation on how addiction is rooted in family dysfunction. Douglas turns in a competent, if rote, performance as the idealistic but deluded father, but in these domestic scenes writer Stephen Gaghan's otherwise sprightly screenplay seizes up into the language of the recovery movement. To his credit, Soderbergh sidesteps all opportunities to take cheap shots at addiction support groups, but the pilgrim's progress of the Wakefield family flattens the movie's more bracing ideas about drugs as a nexus for American race relations into a tidy sermon on denial beamed at parents who aren't attending to their kids. Only in passing does the movie touch on a more intractable tragedy: hordes of teenagers from loving homes do hard drugs because they're out there—and more readily available to minors than booze.

Perhaps because it's a world he knows less about and therefore can imagine more vividly, Soderbergh handles the Mexican narrative (all in Spanish) with a hundred times more soul. The pulsing heart of Trafficlies in the predicament of Del Toro's Javier Rodriguez, an honest cop in a tangled web of graft, who finds himself caught in a system that barely distinguishes between drug czars and drug lords until he's unsure which is which, and tries to turn the distance between a rock and a hard place into an opportunity to wangle a longed-for dream for his community. Del Toro, a superb young actor who floated around the indie world until he got noticed in The Usual Suspects, plays Rodriguez like some endearingly off-kilter James Dean—vulnerable and slightly lost, enigma seeping from his sleepy green eyes, a lonely romantic hero with a practical sense and a hint, in the touch of flab on his muscular body, of some future running to seed. In the heart-stopping final scene of Traffic, Javier sits peacefully in a crowd watching a baseball game, a willingly anonymous Everyman who might easily end up the paunchy, quietly beaming patriarch of a large and loving family—or rotting in a ditch somewhere, a forgotten casualty of a war he didn't start and couldn't stop. These last moments are a tremendously civilizing grace note from a director who's grown so nimble at welding independent technique to studio style, and so unswerving in his trust in the intelligence of his audience that his work has taken on echoes of a classier, bygone age of cinema, at once more literate and lighthearted, when the American intelligentsia felt it could join Hollywood rather than beat up on it, and vice versa.

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