Everyone knows which director deserves to walk out of this year's Academy Awards with the most naked gold men. Steven Soderbergh is a shoo-in, and a deserving one. But Academy-watchers, take heart: There's still a great injustice, a terrible oversight, to fret about. Soderbergh shouldn't win for Traffic, the heavy favorite, but for Erin Brockovich. Traffic is the Ralph Nader of this year's Oscar race: an appealingly radical choice, beloved by Hollywood's intelligentsia, that stuns you with its articulateness and whips you into a frenzy of outrage. That is, until you examine it a little more closely and realize how little it's actually saying.
Critics, of course, disagree. They can't get over the fact that Hollywood has financed a project as unconventional as Traffic, with its contrarian political message, handheld camera work, and nonlinear narrative. But Traffic's politics are hardly brash. The drug war is a slow-moving target that virtually no one defends. Handheld camera work might have been inventive in the late '80s, when Soderbergh used it in sex, lies, and videotape, but it's old news by now. And much of the film's dramatic tension is a result of sheer pace and volume. Watch it a second time, and the stories seem much more facile.
Soderbergh intends his movie to be a documentary of the drug war. But to fit together the multiple subplots and legions of characters, he must economize like Al Dunlap. He downsizes the film's psychological acumen, relying instead on cheap cultural clichés and unlikely coincidences: Catherine Zeta-Jones is the archetypal ambitious arriviste; the black drug dealer is an oversexed beast; Erika Christensen sets an all time land-speed record in her descent from innocent prepster to addict; and, perhaps most annoyingly, Michael Douglas is both the drug czar and the parent of a crackhead. Benicio Del Toro's sexy, mysterious performance obscures the fact that we don't know a damn thing about what stimulates his character's heroism. The two most sympathetic characters—Del Toro's Mexican cop and Don Cheadle's American agent—both see their loyal, innocent sidekicks take bullets.
Indeed, Traffic provides not a hint of these characters' biographies or motives, except for the crudest references to Zeta-Jones' youthful poverty in Europe. ("Ah remember what its like to be poor, and ah'm not going back.") As a result, there are the considerable knots in the plot. Take Zeta-Jones' Helena Ayala. She's far too savvy to be blind to her husband's double life as a drug kingpin. The thugs in gold chains should have been a tip-off. And if she's such a naif about drugs, how can she so easily orchestrate transnational deals? And why didn't Pablo Escobar think of shipping cocaine in dissolvable dolls? (Click to read a list of other plot holes.)
Although it doesn't announce it, Erin Brockovich is a more successful project than Traffic. No, it doesn't attempt to sum up the failures of social policy. It strives to accomplish an even greater feat: the revivification of one of the most tired genres on the planet, the legal thriller. Soderbergh follows in the sorry tradition of The Rainmaker and A Civil Action, and he succeeds because he pays precisely no obeisance to those other films. There's no hokey courtroom melodrama, no shameless victimology, no overwrought speeches about justice. Instead of turning the bad guy into a campy John Voight villain, Soderbergh hardly even lets the wicked corporate suits on screen. And most amazingly, it's a crusading film that's actually funny.
When critics want to belittle Erin Brockovich, they call it a "star vehicle." This is a ridiculous complaint (as if North by Northwest and Raging Bull weren't also star vehicles). Critics may have been distracted by Roberts' skimpy skirts, but she turns in a performance worthy of Rosalind Russell or Claudette Colbert. Her bandying with Albert Finney is delivered with near perfect timing. Roberts is not just charismatic but authentic and polished: Erin's trashiness is truly trashy, her lack of judgment frightening, her abilities almost always in question.
Contrast Brockovich's Roberts with Traffic's Del Toro. Both turn in laudable performances as conflicted characters who confuse us at first—is Del Toro a good guy or a complicit hack? Is Roberts a hooker with a heart of gold or a shrill, unstable harridan? But Brockovich's character is built slowly, lovingly, piece by piece, which makes the complexity utterly convincing. Del Toro has to fight with inferior characters for screen time, so he resorts to flashy shortcuts, like his smoky gaze and his mumbling. In fact, think of how much better Traffic would have been as a smaller film: no Michael Douglas doing another beleaguered-white-guy turn; no all-too-ironic look at his daughter's slide into addiction; no condescending look at drug policymakers. The best characters—Luis Guzman, Cheadle, Del Toro—would have had the space and screen time they deserve.
Brockovich evinces Soderbergh's directorial genius far less ostentatiously than Traffic. (In fact, hammy camera tricks like the ones in Traffic have always been Soderbergh's downfall. Erin Brockovich is more in the school of his masterful Out of Sight.) As David Edelstein pointed out in his review of Brockovich, Soderbergh times the film to a startling, idiosyncratic rhythm. A car crash that would normally be accompanied by foreshadowing or portentous music happens in a unexpected flash. The camera fixes on actors for an uncomfortable extra beat. One only wishes he'd done the same with Traffic; but with all that story to tell, he's got no time.
Of course, there's nothing unexpected about the disparity in respect shown to Traffic and Erin Brockovich. Every year, it seems the Academy celebrates a banal movie dressed up as a highbrow one. Two years ago, it was Shakespeare in Love, a basic boy-meets/loses/gets-girl accented with some self-impressed Britty-litty flourishes. Last year, it hailed American Beauty, with its shopworn message about conformity and ice-cold marriages in the suburbs. This year, it seems poised to reward pretentiousness again. But take note, Academy voters: Brockovich is up for two awards, Best Picture and Best Director. If you deprive it of one, be sure reward it with the other.