Oct 3, 2007 at 12:00 am

It's clear that everyone involved in the new sex-slavery docudrama Trade had only the purest of intentions when they signed on to the project: A cushy guest spot on Oprah, maybe, or an Oscar nod, or, at the very least, a star-studded charity party with a fabulous open bar. Certainly they didn't expect to make a movie that's as tawdry, shallow and exploitive as this one. An ostensible thriller about the selling of nubile young girls to pedophiles, Marco Kreuzpaintner's Hollywood debut is one of those movies that's so desperate to be described as "edgy," "provocative" or "hard-hitting" — all those words that look good in newspaper ads — that it forgets to be "good," "insightful" or even "adequately coherent."

Merging sub-Lifetime storytelling with the oh-so-fashionable shaky-cam style of Traffic and Babel, Trade tells the coincidence-laden tale of two kidnapped girls — a single teen mom from Russia (Alicja Bachleda) and a valuable-commodity virgin from Mexico City (Paulina Gaitan) — and the devoted family men who valiantly try to track them down. South of the border, there's the headstrong big brother Jorge (the hysterical Cesar Ramos, apparently auditioning for a telenovela); meanwhile, Texan cop Ray (Kevin Kline, intermittently attempting a marble-mouthed Southern drawl) mourns the loss of his daughter to the very same flesh-peddlers. This being one of those global-enlightenment, after-school-special kind of productions, their paths cross in totally implausible ways, and cultural lessons are learned in between abrupt, frequent flashbacks.

When Trade isn't careening down dead ends — could the evil dragon lady who presides over all the stolen children be Ray's wayward daughter? — it lingers on abuse in a way that manages to be sleazy, laughable and unconvincing, all at the same time. The movie reaches its apex of absurdity when Kline, investigating a squalid sex-slave lair, discovers the girls' X-rated stick-figure drawings on the wall, which illuminate precisely what's been done to them. Mostly, Trade is content to wallow in the morbidly predictable antics of Really Bad Men: If the abductors' moustaches were any longer, they'd twirl them, and if there were a set of railroad tracks handy, no doubt the girls would be tied to them. This being too old-fashioned, Kreuzpaintner instead ratchets up suspense by having Jorge bid online for his sister's cherry (just like eBay!), after which Ray poses as a rich pedophile in order to collect her. Now that's cunning.

Any opportunity to comment — socially or politically — on the all-too-real matter at hand is abandoned in favor of pointlessly atmospheric landscape shots, or groan-inducing attempts at male bonding. Halfway along their 2,000-mile road trip, Ray assuages Jorge's grim outlook with some helpful advice: "Try a little optimism sometimes." Tell that to the families of the reported tens of thousands of adolescents trafficked through the United States every year.


Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].