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WASHINGTON POST WRITER CALLS CRITICS OUT

(EDITORIAL COMMENT)
Here's a column that originally appeared in The Washington Post and subsequently, made its way across the U.S. in papers afterwards. It's funny, harsh, slightly brutal—
but it's interesting because it represents the opposing side as far as TRAFFIC's acclaim is concerned.


A 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.

This 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.

For 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."

But then, 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?"

This, 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.

To list 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.

It was 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.

You will 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 true.

"Traffic" 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.

I, too, 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