This is what happens when nobody wants to admit that the emperor ain't wearing a stitch. Having racked up copious undeserved accolades for writing the hackneyed Million Dollar Baby, Paul Haggis has been granted a wide release for his stateside directorial debut, Crash. As a result, audiences everywhere are about to find out how abominably off-putting an extended diatribe masquerading as an ensemble drama can be.
An artless statement about Racism Today, the movie scans like a film-festival entry submitted by a naive first-timer only this one has the distinction of disgracing Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser and Ryan Phillippe, all of whom apparently jumped at the chance to work in a "message picture."
The movie begins with a scene of a multicar pileup. Among the affected is our old pal Cheadle, who instead of reacting to the accident with logical commentary (i.e., "Ouch ouch ouch!") spouts an impromptu, pseudo-poetic argument that the near-miss he's just survived is emblematic of the Los Angeles lifestyle. Cheadle's flowery observation is a clear warning that Haggis has zero regard for the way people actually talk, and that deficiency dogs the writer/director as he retraces the events that led up to the accident. From what we can see, the previous 36 hours amounted to a series of ugly confrontations between Angelenos of varying ethnicities who hate each other's guts and didn't mind saying so whenever the opportunity presented itself (and especially when it didn't).
Cheadle's character, we learn, is a cop, as are most of the other players in this improbably connected story-puzzle; many of the others work in the entertainment industry. (There are also a few politicos, a Middle Eastern retailer and a Mexican locksmith, just to prove that Haggis' frame of reference isn't totally limited to things he sees at work or in other peoples' movies.) The links between their outwardly disparate lives are revealed in stages. A black TV director (Terrence Howard) gets harassed by a cop (Dillon) and takes endless flak from his wife (Thandie Newton) because of it. The latter cop tries to help his ailing dad while schooling his green partner (Phillippe) in the ways of suspect intimidation. And two carjackers (Larenz Tate, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) pull off a heist that stokes the bigoted fears of a well-connected couple (Fraser, Bullock).
To Haggis, these simple plotlines are mere excuses for his characters to launch into hysterical, high-flown tirades. We're seldom more than 30 seconds from the next barely provoked rant about the injustices white men commit against black men, the contempt European-born Americans have for darker-skinned immigrants and the indignities black men heap upon Hispanic women who love them but wish their fellas could remember their exact nationalities. All that's missing is a sentient bar of Toblerone wondering aloud why white chocolate always acts like it's so big. Maybe it'll be on the DVD.
With so much hectoring to squeeze in, it's no wonder that the characters' arcs are either unbelievable, underformed or both. Howard's humiliated TV director, for example, gets his groove back by making an unnecessary, potentially suicidal stand in front of the armed but anxious Phillippe. The sequence is as out of character as it is trivial: If you're a meek brother trying to learn to confront The Man, Ryan Phillippe is like the starter kit.
In trying to demonstrate that racism is everywhere, Haggis proves his point only backhandedly. Had Spike Lee essayed a sociological salvo this blatant, one realizes, he'd be even more of a laughingstock than he is already. There's also the question of why Dillon's character, the biggest hatemonger in the movie, gets to be responsible for its shiniest moment of heroism. Just what in the name of God does that say?
Worse, Haggis' shrieking screed ignores the truth that modern racism is perpetuated via unspoken signals that fly under the radar of hiring quotas and affirmative-action schemes. In this movie, every prejudice is up for immediate discussion and therefore solvable at a moment's notice. For a truer examination of color madness in America, we'll have to wait. Like until the Bad News Bears remake comes out, maybe.