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 Traffic feel 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.
Traffic is 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.
Traffic sometimes 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 Traffic lies 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.
There‘s almost nothing I can tell you about the plot of Cast Away that you haven’t already seen in the tell-all trailer: Type-A FedEx honcho gets stranded on television desert island, does his Robinson Crusoe thing, ponders meaning of existence, lives to tell tale to the nice blond he left behind. That preview, and the alarming posters at your local bus shelter of Tom Hanks looking like the geezer who rose panting from the waves to usher in each episode of Monty Python‘s Flying Circus, seemed to promise two hours of furtive giggling in the aisles. That I stayed to pray is testimony to the movie’s likability rather than to its reach for existential profundity.
We first meet chubby, frantic Chuck Noland in Moscow, barking time-management orders at a cowed-looking bunch of Russians. When last we see him, slimmed-down and freshly shaven, he‘s a chastened a yet hopeful man at a crossroads, transformed by four years of eating crab, with nothing but a soccer ball for company. The sole survivor of a plane crash that brings out the technical best in director Robert Zemeckis, Chuck is washed up on a Pacific Island with little to commend it but the coconuts. There follows a brave directorial move — almost an hour of thunderous silence as we watch Chuck figuring out how to stay physically alive. That’s the easy part. If trying to hold on to his sense of time is hard for a man whose unexamined life has been ruled by the clock, examining that life is pure agony. The very scenes you expect to be unspeakably mawkish — the relationship Chuck forms with Wilson, a soccer ball he‘s taken from a parcel that washed up with him, and on which he paints a face with his own blood — are handled with a delicacy that makes them almost unbearably moving. But screenwriter William Broyles Jr. can’t resist excursions into levity. Once Chuck starts talking to the ball, the jokes start flowing, draining the movie of what Zemeckis most longs to offer us: an inner life. Which obliges Hanks to deliver a long speech near the end of the movie, summarizing what was going on in his savage breast on the island.
As the love of Chuck‘s life, Helen Hunt is being Helen Hunt, a reliable supporting player who, Pay It Forward notwithstanding, has yet to prove she can shine in limelight. Hanks, too, is solid and inspiring in the way he always is when no one’s asking him to do better. Solid and inspiring will do nicely for Christmas — and wonders for FedEx, whose packages have cameos in every other scene — but it ought not to be good enough for the Oscar nominations that will almost certainly rain upon this movie‘s adequate head.
Nothing takes the stuffing out of a literary adaptation quite as efficiently as an excess of respect for the author. And no author seems to have inspired more reverence than Edith Wharton, who specialized in lives stifled by propriety and really nice silverware. Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence and John Madden‘s Ethan Frome felt embalmed in period accuracy, so it comes as a nice surprise that a director like Terence Davies, himself no stranger to the cinematic still life, has the vision and the guts to lift Wharton’s The House of Mirth out of the funeral parlor of costume drama and into opera. Not the shrieky, all-stops-out kind, but a slow burn of cumulative pain ending in a private tragedy that‘s also an indictment of a social system.
Though it was shot in Scotland, The House of Mirth does sumptuous justice to the brocaded decorum of belle epoque New York. Still, Davies is no slave to decor. The movie has a marvelous, pent-up passion: Davies has caught in a bottle the quietly feverish tone of Wharton’s bleak tale of a woman brought to ruin by lack of social capital. With her red hair piled extravagantly atop her lovely head, Gillian Anderson makes a magnificent Lily Bart, a glittering yet impoverished young socialite who, like any Hollywood ingenue today, imagines that the charm and beauty that draw men to her will also make them stay. Lily is at once a casualty of an old, neo-British society of manners, whose thin veneer of hushed politesse overlays a vipers‘ nest peopled with conniving opportunists — and of a brash new world in which emotional life is conducted on business principles. Laura Linney is deliciously insidious as the steely young matron who sets Lily up for her first major fall; Anthony LaPaglia excels as a businessman who makes Lily understand — the hard way — that she may have bought into the game, but she doesn’t understand the rules; and Eric Stoltz does his usual languid turn, which makes him perfect for the one true love who fails Lily when the chips are down.
The House of Mirth is a feast of elegiac images: Davies wrings melancholy from sheets of rain falling on water, or a house full of shrouded furniture, or the taking of afternoon tea. As the movie swells into tragedy (not for nothing is the score peppered with bits from Cosi fan Tutte), Lily, compromised by the malice of others and by the internal struggle between her moral scruples and her corruptibility, grows paler and more fragile — she‘s radiant with despair. “Ah, Lily,” sighs a friend more worldly than she, “the world is vile.” And no one does vile more gorgeously than Terence Davies.
And so, at last, to Christmas. Brought to you by Brett Ratner without so much as a by-your-leave to Dickens or Capra, The Family Man stars Nicolas Cage as an angry corporate asshole — the kind who spends Christmas Eve brokering megadeals — who, by means of a dream sequence induced by one of God’s handy emissaries (Don Cheadle), comes to appreciate what a rich life he might have led had he not shut the door on his college sweetheart (Tea Leoni). This is not as bad as it sounds, and a good deal better than the movie‘s sappy trailer. With a pert screenplay by David Diamond and David Weissman, The Family Man has the airiness of a well-made souffle, springing delicate small surprises at calibrated intervals. Cage is just fine, and Leoni’s forthright, sexy performance as the wife manquee makes you understand why she makes a believer out of her gun-shy husband. So much so that you almost forget you‘re being served another bowl of Hollywood gruel by men in Malibu compounds sermonizing that in fact it’s we honest Joes, the ones who pony up the bucks to see their movies, who understand what life is really about. I‘m off now to the car dealership to watch them trade in their Ferraris for minivans. God bless them, every one.