Traffic Jams

Traffic is A helter-skelter mosaic about drug use in locales as disparate as Tijuana and Cincinnati’s affluent Hyde Park. The various discrete stories coalesce in a single panorama; the corruption is total and cuts across all boundaries. Steven Soderbergh, who directed from a script by Stephen Gaghan loosely derived from a British TV mini-series, shot most of the movie himself with handheld cameras, and the jittery, present-tense approach unifies the action even when the visual schemes – cool-blue hues for the upper-crust sequences, tobacco-brown tones for the Mexican scenes – clash. The fracturedness of the story lines matches Soderbergh’s scattershot technique; at times we appear to be watching a new-style policier crossed with a documentary about dope-dealing mixed in with a TV cop show added to an inspirational anti-drug sermonette about the need for parents to listen to their troubled children.

Each separate story line is compelling if too familiar, and together they accumulate into a larger vision. Perhaps unavoidably, there’s also an ungainliness to the enterprise. We keep getting yanked in and out of high-anxiety situations; it’s like a serial bad trip. As with much of Soderbergh’s avant-garde work, his garde isn’t quite as avant as he would have us believe it is. In movies such as The Limey and Out of Sight, for example, he buffed the noir to a fine finish but the appeal remained essentially pulpy and old-fashioned. Still, Soderbergh’s jazzed stylistics can be smartly entertaining. Without them, an uneven movie like Traffic might seem more of a mélange than it already is.

An overwrought Michael Douglas plays an Ohio Supreme Court justice and the president’s new drug czar, whose daughter (Erika Christensen), as he is slow to realize, is a junkie. In another story line, Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are San Diego DEA agents whose undercover work brings them into the world of a La Jolla drug kingpin (Steven Bauer) and his pregnant, socialite wife (an underwrought Catherine Zeta-Jones). Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas are Mexican cops who, in the course of busting up one of the major drug cartels, find their scruples seriously tested by the entrepreneurial lure of Mexican law enforcement. Soderbergh is very canny about the ways in which information is imparted to us. When, for example, we see Douglas, on a fact-finding expedition, checking out the U.S.-Mexican border in San Diego, we don’t need to be told how overwhelming his challenge is – it’s right there for us to see, in the bunched-up rows of cars that look as if they were melting in waves of heat. Any of these vehicles could be a carrier of contraband.

Soderbergh’s hit-and-run technique allows him to make his points quickly and move on. He slows down when he wants to highlight a gesture, a glance, and this is particularly helpful for an actor like Del Toro, whose performing style is like an extended slow burn. The film’s most resonant and emotionally powerful moment comes when his character’s modest but unmovable ambition is realized and he takes on the heavy-lidded look of someone transported into a bittersweet bliss beyond the reach of corruption. It’s the only natural high in the movie.

Terence Davies’s The House of Mirth is a rigorously elegant adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel, and unlike in some other Davies movies, the rigor here doesn’t turn into rigor mortis. The tragic, ambiguous note is struck from the first, when we see Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) emerging from Grand Central Terminal and realize she is just as ethereal as the vast plume of smoke through which she appears. A socialite in Belle Époque New York, Lily is almost poignantly fragile; although her quest for a moneyed husband seems predatory, she is too decent in the end, too sorrowful and full of grace, to be a successful huntress. Instead, she is undone by the cruelties of the lavish world she wants to make her own. Each defeat for her carries the force of a death knell, and no man, not the financier Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) or the lawyer Lawrence Seldon (Eric Stoltz) or anyone else, can save her from a doom she has been warming to all along.

Davies shows an immense affinity for Lily’s troubled soul. The viciousness and glitter of beau monde New York in 1905 – scrupulously re-created here – is filtered through her frightened awe. Davies pulls off some bravura sequences – including a series of majestic camera sweeps that take us in one long glissando from a vacant mansion to the prow of a yacht cutting through the waves – but the overall effect here is one of rapt stillness. This is dourness of a degree you won’t find in Wharton, but in its own shadowed terms the film is a triumph. The darkness in Davies’s conception allows the bloom of Gillian Anderson’s face to come through. Her close-ups have the delicacy of a silent-film maiden’s – the delicacy of someone who can’t survive the world’s harshness and yet lights that world from within.

Thirteen Days recounts the moment-to-moment brinkmanship in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This sweat-it-out saga has been filmed before, notably in 1974, with ABC’s Missiles of October, which gave us not only William Devane and Martin Sheen as Jack and Bobby Kennedy but also Howard Da Silva (!) as Khrushchev. I would wager that more potentially deployable nuclear missiles are in the world now than in 1974 or 1962, but the effect of watching Thirteen Days is unavoidably nostalgic anyway. Roger Donaldson, directing from a script by David Self based on the book The Kennedy Tapes – Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, isn’t trying for a cautionary tale here. The movie is more like a deconstruction of a bygone near-annihilation. Finally, the graying members of the boomer generation can see precisely how it came to pass that they were sent scurrying beneath their grade-school desks.

Although most of the film plays out like a docudrama, there’s a fair amount of high-pressure hokum to take the starch out of the history lesson, particularly when hawks like General Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway) are fulminating. Much of the action involves Kenny O’Donnell, a close “Irish Mafia” cohort of the Kennedys and a White House adviser to the president. He’s played by Kevin Costner in a Boston accent that leaves more than a bit to be desired – even Jackie Mason’s Ted Kennedy impression is closer to the real thing. But otherwise Costner doesn’t stand out unduly, and his staunch reticence is admirable. He doesn’t try to turn himself into the whole show, and yet it is O’Donnell’s sidelong perspective that gives the film its skewed fascination. As Robert and Jack Kennedy, Steven Culp and Bruce Greenwood are better at the accent thing and creditably lifelike; each seems to be giving a performance rather than an impersonation. I much prefer the whacked-out, Dr. Strangelove-ish brand of political-apocalypse film to all this straitlaced you-are-there dramaturgy, which seems a throwback to the early sixties not only in time but in spirit. But what Thirteen Days sets out to do it does admirably.

Catholic Colm (Barry McEvoy) and Protestant George (Brían F. O’Byrne) work together in a hospital barbershop in Belfast; you could say that hair brings them together. They cook up a plan to corner the Northern Ireland market in hairpieces, billing themselves as the Piece People. Their competition: a company known as Toupee or Not Toupee. This is the backdrop for Barry Levinson’s comedy An Everlasting Piece, set sometime in the eighties, which was written by McEvoy. (His father is a barber who used to sell hairpieces.) It’s a truism that the unlikeliest comic situations sometimes result in the most likable of comedies, and this one, at its best, is a real original – as lyrically nutty as a vintage Bill Forsyth picture. It’s filled with marvelous little folkloric throwaways, like the bit with Colm’s mother wearing a hair net so the smoke from her cigarette won’t stain her locks.

Movies about Ireland tend to be bloated with blarney, but Levinson doesn’t press the whimsy; coming from outside the culture probably helped him to see things with a fresh eye. His approach to the Troubles is so oblique you may forget that the blood-and-bullets backdrop is real. And yet, by giving us a cockeyed spin on the factionalism, An Everlasting Piece is probably a stronger political experience than many a more somber movie. Maybe comedy is the only way to present this material anymore. The joke here is that vanity is the great unifier: Catholics and Protestants, the IRA and the British, all value the plumage of a good hairpiece. Colm and George are like a great comedy team; they have an avidity for rhyming each other’s sentences, and when they have a falling-out, they’re miserable – they need to get their lives back into sync. McEvoy is a crackerjack performer who knows how to play off O’Byrne’s moonstruck timing, and Anna Friel, as Colm’s powerhouse girlfriend, keeps juicing the comedy; she’s the only performer I’ve ever seen who can make nagging seem sexy. The one letdown is that there isn’t nearly enough of Billy Connolly, playing a crazed hospital patient known as the Scalper, who first gives the boys the idea to take over the toupee market. Connolly has a scene behind bars, where he gulps down a buzzing fly and then dithers on about Saint Paul and the hermaphrodites, that is such a loony jag that you want him along for the whole movie and not just in dribs and drabs. The filmmakers have scalped the Scalper, but just about everyone else in this small-scale classic gets the full treatment.

Given how acidic David Mamet can be toward Hollywood (as in his play Speed-the-Plow), his new film, State and Main, which is about the shenanigans of a movie crew on location in a New England town, is surprisingly mild. Actually, Mamet’s approach is not so much mild as it is indifferent: He doesn’t lavish his customary full attention on these characters because he doesn’t care enough about them or what they do (maybe indifference represents his ultimate revenge on Hollywood). Even at half-speed, Mamet still manages to pull off some marvelous, if familiar, satire of movie-business egomania, and the tip-top cast includes David Paymer as a viperish producer; William H. Macy as the glib, harried director; Alec Baldwin as a star with a fetish for underage chicks; Sarah Jessica Parker as his insecure co-star; and, in a role that indicates Mamet’s worst-case image of himself, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the serious playwright turned hack screenwriter. In speaking Mamet’s best lines, these performers bring out the grain in his syncopated nastiness.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman, Steven Bauer, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Benicio Del Toro, and Jacob Vargas.
The House of Mirth
Adapted from the Edith Wharton novel and directed by Terence Davies; starring Gillian Anderson, Anthony LaPaglia, and Eric Stoltz.
Thirteen Days
Directed by Roger Davidson; starring Steven Culp, Bruce Greenwood, Kevin Costner, and Kevin Conway.
An Everlasting Piece
Directed by Barry Levinson; starring Barry McEvoy, Brían F. O’Byrne, Anna Friel, and Billy Connolly.
State and Main
Written and directed by David Mamet; starring David Paymer, Alec Baldwin, William H. Macy, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Traffic Jams