Trying for messaging beyond its ability, Traffik only manages to stall.
Life gives and it takes, and sometimes it gives again. So along the way, only one thing is certain: there are few certainties. The best we can do, in response, is to prepare ourselves, training ourselves to see more clearly the myriad of things that are happening around us, and in the end hope that, when something wanting to involve us occurs, we are ready, that our own gifts will avail us.
If any of this sounds uncomfortably vague and a tad too familiar, don’t be alarmed, because somewhere deep down in the cockles of nearly every film that has ever breathed life on the screen has resided this underlying message. Traffik is no different. The difference, of course, is in how it manifests this theme.
Traffik follows the misadventures of the youthful, beautiful, philosophically-minded journalist Brea, played by Paula Patton, who has high hopes about bringing more thoughtfulness to the newspaper industry. To her, it is not enough that the public is made aware of corruption in the government, of money laundering at city hall, of pay-for-play schemes with public works projects, or of any such thing. No, she contends with her lucubrations, a journalist must harken back to the political corruption of the Roman Empire in order to explore if society as a whole is somehow dependent on corruption in government for its well-being and continuance. Brea’s editor, on the other hand, is unsurprisingly unimpressed by the effort, and while she is for months writing her treatise-in-miniature, he assigns the story to a more conventional journalist and puts that story out to the public. We see Brea scold the editor and try to shame the alternately-assigned journalist. When the editor suggests that she may no longer have a place at the newspaper, we sympathize, and yet we are not exactly moved to believe the suggestion is without merit. All this within the first five minutes of meeting our intrepid protagonist.
Adding contrivance to convenience, we are told that it is, in fact, Brea’s birthday. What this means is that her lover and her friends are gathered together and that each, in their turn, is allowed to try to console her in their own peculiar way. Maybe or maybe not the revelation affects her boyfriend, John, played by Omar Epps. As they learn that she has likely lost her job, he more or less responds as if he’s hurt that he was deprived of an opportunity to put in a few perfunctory words earlier. He nevertheless has plans. He wants to propose, and so has taken steps to arrange a romantic weekend with Brea at a mansion in the hills. But before he can spring the surprise, the surprise is bungled by Darren, played by Laz Alonzo, who himself provided the opportunity through some connections he has with various famous athletes. Everyone seems reasonably sure they know what such a plan signals. Brea asks to be excused in order to go to the restroom, and the usual girl-to-girl bathroom accompaniment ensues. Life is good, if not overly great.
So off Brea and John go to their romantic getaway, driving the car John rebuilt and gifted to Brea for the occasion, both of them expecting nothing but unbridled bliss. The film at this point, having made laborious efforts to glorify Brea as youthful, as beautiful, as philosophically-minded, changes its tone from that of a romantic drama to that of general exploitation horror. How does this accord with the philosophical musings introduced previously? Well, the film will tell us–just give it a minute. But Brea and John are so happy and so deeply in love. See how they kiss, how they hug, how they leer at each other for moments on end. Is this altogether interesting? Some shady characters are met along the way, potentially spoiling their remove to paradise. Is it purposeful? The film has an answer for you, or it desperately thinks it does. In fact, the film insists, we will come to see the truth, if only we again show a bit more patience so that it may draw up and happily reveal to us its terribly profound plan.
That time never comes, and soon we as viewers are tired and about ready to abscond to more delightful viewing. The film wants us to accept that a particular kind of journalist, her job as a journalist recently in jeopardy, will happen to stumble across a human trafficking ring. According to the statistics, we cannot say with certainty that it would be impossible. The film even ends by giving us something of those statistics. But given that reality, Brea, of all people, hardly seems the person to whom this sort of meeting would be propitious. She as a character is all over the place. One moment she is focused, feisty and no-nonsense; the next gazy and loving, indescribably adorable; and still the next she is quick-thinking and battle-hardened. Somewhere along the way she has to be acting, right? She has to have foibles, no? Oh, but the film cannot be detracted with such human concerns as making its central character appear a mere human. A particularly irksome moment comes later when the film tries to make Brea iconic by giving her a ludicrous line as if certain conditions of life are unfathomable, though she condemns evil that anyone with morals could see as evil without qualification. So, sure, the opportunity presents itself, but Brea’s disparate gifts would not avail her.
The film feels much smaller than it should because we do not feel that human trafficking is a large, well-oiled enterprise despite being evil. We do not feel the enormity of human trafficking because there are too many bodies but too few characters and personalities. Wanting a bad guy to say something half-way substantial is expecting things far too sensible for this film, and remembering one of their names is out of the question. Everything here is stock. The bad guy is bad because he is bad, and without fail, he thinks of money as an end to an end. None of this is the fault of the actors involved, of course. They are all good actors and are, with one exception, very likeable, each working well with the material they are given. Patton herself is gainfully likeable, but in the role of a rugged field journalist, she does not fit, and so she fails the film. Brea comes across as worse than a blank slate, seeming an optimist and meanderer, living largely disconnected from her alleged beliefs: she seems a fraud. A protagonist who is intellectual and yet has a perceptible pessimism towards the world was needed, and that Brea is most definitely not. It is clear that the problems that exist for this film are problems that stem from the writers’ room, the director’s chair, and the film’s executive board.
Most things about this film are more fitful than fitting. Styling itself in such a way to invoke memories of the similarly entitled Traffic (2000), itself based on the 1989 British TV series Traffik, 2018’s Traffik hopes to garner some of the esteem and some of the filmic high-mindedness of its international forebears. The problem here is that Traffik disadvantages itself by pretending it sips of the same supple air. Where these previous explorations engaged the audience without tricks or too much prodding, on more than one occasion, this current film cheapens its message by blatantly contravening an idea or emotion it has already established in reaching for profundity, whether by having character actions be at different times incongruous with what we thought we knew about them, or whether by having music rise and fall to tell us what we should be feeling in a particular moment rather than allowing us to feel what we feel as the moment dictates. There are for those more salacious, however, pleasures aplenty and joys in good number, which may save the endeavour and make the film a fairly watchable romp.