We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The sprawling, extravagantly hyped kicker to a year of smaller-scale drug flicks, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is splashy yet solemn. Beneath its undeniable bravura and seeming gravitas, however, the film is basically a soap opera posing as a police procedural—or perhaps vice versa. It’s entirely apt that Traffic began as Traffik, a 1989 miniseries made for Channel 4, the artiest British broadcast-TV network.

The movie follows three stories that overlap more thematically than actually. In Tijuana, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) is a noble, offbeat narcotics cop who insists on staying clean in a system that has no place for the uncorrupted. Near San Diego, Helena Ayala (the visibly pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones) lives the honeyed existence of an upscale suburban matron until she—and her country-club friends—suddenly discovers that the source of her husband Carlos’ (Steven Bauer) wealth is his cocaine-smuggling business. Commuting from Cincinnati to Washington, hard-line anti-drug Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) accepts the job of federal drug czar—but doesn’t realize that his 16-year-old daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), is regularly smoking crack. Perhaps these chapters would be more compelling if they unfolded over the course of a miniseries; although Traffic runs two-and-a-half hours, it’s not long enough to let the characterizations develop at a convincing pace.

Soderbergh has claimed Robert Altman’s Nashville as a principal inspiration—but who doesn’t these days? Indeed, Traffic’s narrative fugue recalls such recent Nashville-ian epics as Magnolia, Beautiful People, and Wonderland. Perhaps more important, however, is the rough-and-tumble influence of recent European directors. The film’s images—shot by Soderbergh under the publicly acknowledged alias Peter Andrews—are as ragged and off-kilter as any product of the Danish Dogma-tists. And Traffic’s semidocumentary mode suggests such Francophone filmmakers as Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas, Erick Zonca, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and, ultimately, Jean-Luc Godard.

Traffic was made with the cooperation of the Drug Enforcement Agency and other federal agencies, so Soderbergh was able to send Douglas-as-Wakefield to checkpoints and command centers in Texas and California, where he’s briefed on how drugs cross the border. He also goes to Washington, where a cocktail party is populated by senators playing themselves, including Orrin Hatch and Barbara Boxer. Because Wakefield is supposed to be a drug-policy novice, the director simply dropped Douglas into improvisational situations where he could ask the questions a fledgling drug czar might. These are some of the film’s more credible moments, but they won’t edify anyone who’s read a halfway decent magazine or newspaper article on the U.S. drug trade.

Despite its impromptu scenes, Traffic is never freewheeling. Soderbergh is an obsessive formalist whose films often seem to turn more on art direction than on narrative. Here he color-codes the three tales, rendering Mexico in garish yellow and Washington/Ohio in arctic blue. Still, it’s the Ohio story that’s the most lurid—and the most glib. Scripter Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the tidily bogus Rules of Engagement, sends Caroline on an unbelievably quick descent from private-school golden girl to heroin-craving whore. All it takes is a few misspent afternoons with a bad influence—smarmy boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace)—before Caroline takes up residence in a downtown slum from which her father must rescue her, Charles Bronson-style. Long dependent on his nightly Scotch to help him ignore his wife (Amy Irving) and daughter, Wakefield is the character who has what the movie passes off as a revelation: We have met the enemy and he is us.

The film’s other two episodes are less dogmatic and occasionally even touched by wit. The ethnically indeterminate Helena—Zeta-Jones uses her Welsh accent for the first time in an American movie—makes an amusingly abrupt turn from domestic tranquility to underworld ferocity to protect her fortune from a potential witness (Miguel Ferrer) and her husband’s self-serving attorney (Dennis Quaid). The implication is that the DEA agent (Don Cheadle) who’s been dogging the Ayalas will get them yet, but this tale is not burdened by the moral of the Washington/Ohio one.

Although its amber light becomes oppressive, the south-of-the-border story is the lustiest and most dramatically cogent of the three. The depictions of the Mexican characters are simplistic—recalling Rules of Engagement’s Yemeni zealots—but Del Toro’s stylized swagger drives this chapter, which is mostly in Spanish. If Traffic is to be believed, Mexican interrogation techniques have not become appreciably more humane since the era of All the Pretty Horses, but Del Toro is even friskier than Penélope Cruz in a scene in which Rodriguez picks up a vicious assassin—actually wanted for questioning, not sex—in a seedy bar. As always, Del Toro is a charming weirdo; here he seems to be gleefully leading his episode off-message.

But what is the message? Probably not what the DEA was hoping when it agreed to cooperate. (The screening I attended was mostly for federal bureaucrats who helped with the film; their reaction was decidedly muted.) Traffic tries to appear dispassionate and up-to-date by delivering minilectures about NAFTA and “market forces,” but it ultimately settles for a ’60s-style rebuke to a nation that can’t conquer its compulsion for alcohol and nicotine even while enforcing hypocritical laws against marijuana and cocaine. As the United States’ blatantly racist “war on drugs” continues, such familiar homilies are a paltry payoff for a big movie that professes to be searching for big answers. CP