Directed by: Paul Haggis
Starring: Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Ryan Phillippe, Thandie Newton, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser
Writer Paul Haggis' directorial debut is obviously intended to be an important film, but I'd be much more inclined to accept that it is one if Crash didn't have "Oscar Bait" written all over it.
As with Haggis' screenplay for Million Dollar Baby, this movie insists on announcing its significance at every turn, to such a degree that it's always trying too hard. And it's this straining for seriousness that keeps Haggis' film from reaching the level of greatness to which it aspires.
The film is just too determined to play on a midcult level; the result is a work that repeats its theme so much that viewers are apt to scream, "OK, I get it!" It's the kind of cinematic condescension that suggests the audience might not be too bright -- and I suppose a resume that includes stints as a staff writer for Diff'rent Strokes, The Love Boat and The Facts of Life could do that to you.
Haggis has created an ensemble film that owes a great deal to Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia. The similarities are too obvious to be coincidental, and they serve to point up Crash's problems, because the results are a little too much like Magnolia for Dummies.
Haggis does a realistic variation on the "rain of frogs" from Anderson's film that would work on its own, but instead he insists on forecasting the event so obviously that the impact is blunted when it arrives. Anderson hinted at what was to come, including the chapter and verse of the relevant biblical reference in wall graffiti early in his film. Nothing so subtle for Haggis: That it's unusually cold in Los Angeles is stated from the onset of Crash, and followed by the statement, "They say it might snow." Gee, where do you suppose this is going? And that's just one of a number of examples of Haggis' obsession with literalizing and telegraphing everything.
Moreover, he misses the essence of Anderson's film, even while aping it. At bottom, so much of what happens in Magnolia is about the connectedness of things -- how all these seemingly unrelated events aren't really unrelated at all. Haggis' film has this theme, but he's so focused on the fact that he's making a movie about racism that he overlooks it. Instead, he structures the film on an altogether too neat series of credulity-challenged coincidences that could only work in a framework that tries to understand how these things interconnect, even if they seem random. When everything that happens is obviously designed to set something up -- from a box of ammo to a make-believe invisible cloak that assures invincibility -- any sense of randomness goes out the window.
However, despite its sledgehammer tactics and appalling miscalculations, Crash is still a very good film that deserves to be seen. Much of the script, which Haggis co-wrote with Bobby Moresco, is good, and sometimes it flirts with greatness. The dialogue is sharp and sometimes bitterly funny. And the film's examination of racism is bluntly on target.
The story plays off racial stereotypes and is bold enough to sometimes undermine its own arguments against those stereotypes, while still decrying their existence. This is especially true in the characters played by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and Larenz Tate, who are eloquently incensed over the fact that white people think they're a threat -- when, truth be told, they are a threat. The very idea of exploring how racism impacts every level of society is bold, since such issues are rarely addressed in this era when we like to pretend we're past such things.
What's more, the acting in the film is terrific -- and an ego trip for no one. In fact, anyone going to Crash to see a Sandra Bullock movie is in for a rude awakening. The same is true for the other big-name stars. This film belongs to the cast as a group, and if any performances emerge as "star turns," these come from lesser draws like Don Cheadle, Ryan Phillippe, Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon.
In addition, Haggis' direction is solid and occasionally creative, and he's made a handsome film that captures the mood it seeks at almost every turn. I suspect that Haggis actually has a great film in him, and maybe more than one, if only he'll calm down, learn to trust the audience and lay off constructing stories in such a way that he pauses to pat himself on the back for his clever use of irony.
Deeply flawed as it is, Crash is worthwhile for two key reasons: There's a jewel buried inside its missteps, and it does leave you with something to think about. Rated R for language, sexual content and some violence.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke