World of Cliches Through a Tinted Lens
By Richard Cohen
Thursday, December 28, 2000; Page A23
NEW YORK -- "Traffic," the new film by Steven Soderbergh,
is on almost everyone's list of the top 10 films of 2000 and
has already won the New York Film Critics Circle Award. It did
so, mind you, before it even opened here -- or anywhere else.
That is just one of the oddities of this film. The other is
this: It's stupid.
is a movie about the drug trade between the United States and
Mexico. The plot is based on the assumption that you have not
read a newspaper in the past 20 years and would, for example,
find it surprising that some members of the Mexican military
are corrupt. For authenticity, certain U.S. senators -- Barbara
Boxer, Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley and others -- appear at a
Washington cocktail party, but after that one scene, nothing
again makes sense.
instance, DEA agents guarding a witness who has been marked
for death leave their car unguarded so that some mean-looking
Mexican assassin can plant a bomb under it. In the same vein,
these same agents, guarding the same incredibly valuable witness,
do not hesitate to open the hotel room door to someone who merely
identifies himself as the person bringing "breakfast."
Soderbergh must think the "D" in DEA stands for "dumb."
lots of people in this movie are dumb. The major drug lord,
for instance, comes right out of jail and uses the phone in
his own house to talk business and threaten an associate.
A bit earlier, some Mexican bad guys kidnap some Mexican good
guys from the streets of San Diego and take them south of
the border handcuffed to the car's shoulder belt mounting.
For some reason, neither the American nor Mexican border customs
officials notice and ask, "Why are those two men handcuffed
to this car's shoulder belt mountings, amigo?"
though, is nothing. In this film, the U.S. drug czar (Michael
Douglas), is a one-time conservative Ohio judge who does not
realize that his very own daughter is -- you guessed it --
a druggie. Before you can even begin to appreciate this thermonuclear
cliche, the 16-year-old girl runs away from home and becomes
a hooker to support her habit. Does her father the drug czar
call in the police to find this runaway child whose life is
clearly in danger? Not if he's Michael Douglas he doesn't.
He searches for her himself.
the absurdities, stupidities and inanities of this movie would
not only take the rest of this column, it would be pointless
-- but something of a public service. You will not likely
find it done anywhere else. Instead, all but one of the critics
I've read are in thrall to whiz-kid Soderbergh's movie-making.
He shot the film himself. He used a hand-held camera. He employed
filters to impart a parched, brownish tint to Mexico, a brightish
one for San Diego and a blue one for Cincinnati, the hometown
of our dumb-as-a-post drug czar.
Alfred Hitchcock who used the term "icebox scene"
to describe the moment when a moviegoer realized that a part
of a film made no sense. If that moment occurs hours after
the movie is over -- when the person who has seen the movie
is reaching into the icebox for a late-night snack -- that's
permissible. But if the icebox scene occurs as you are watching
the movie, then that is not permissible. This movie is a train
wreck of iceboxes.
note that nowhere in this devilishly clever movie review did
I used the term "bad" or "dull" or "boring."
"Traffic" is none of those things. I realize, as
do you, that a movie need not make sense for it to be fun
or even emotionally moving. "Casablanca" is hardly
realistic. Among other things, people did not escape from
concentration camps in Palm Beach suits. It is, however, emotionally
is not in that league by a long shot. It is simply a good-enough
film. It could have been a lot better, however. But the critics,
who write as if they are fellow filmmakers, refuse to hold
the real filmmakers to even a minimal standard of cliche avoidance
or verisimilitude and, instead, widely praise a movie that
makes no sense. It should receive an award for Most Cliches
in a Feature Film With Tinted Lenses. It will probably, instead,
receive an Oscar.
admire Soderbergh. He is a talented director. But he knows
he cheated on this one and, worse, he knows he got away with
it. The obligation of the critics to call him on his cliches
and absurdities was not exercised in this case. I give the
film three stars. I give the reviewers none.
2000 The Washington Post Company