Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Larenz Tate and Ludacris look to steal themselves another car in ‘Crash.’
Starring Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Ryan Phillippe, Terrence Howard, Ludacris, Larenz Tate, Brendan Fraser, and Sandra Bullock. Written and directed by Paul Haggis. Rated R.
Unhappy Accidents

Crash and burn: This would-be modern epic trips over its own ambitions.


It didn’t take long for Crash to set off the alarm bells in my head. It happened as soon as Don Cheadle spoke the opening lines: “We’re always behind this metal and glass. It’s the sense of touch. In L.A., nobody touches you. I think we miss that sense of touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.” Oh, crap.
Of course, immediately after that little speech, the camera pulls back to reveal that Cheadle is playing a cop who has just been involved in a car accident, while his partner (Jennifer Esposito) turns to a paramedic and says, “I think he hit his head.” After that bit of self-deflating wit, though, the movie quickly reverts to its insufferable pretentiousness and devolves into a heap of junk.
Crash isn’t based on J.G. Ballard’s novel about people who are sexually aroused by car crashes, which David Cronenberg made into a film in 1996. Instead, this directorial debut by screenwriter Paul Haggis (fresh from his Oscar nomination for Million Dollar Baby) is one of those movies that aims to be a panoramic portrait of lives being lived and occasionally intersecting in the melting pot of Los Angeles, from the mansions of Beverly Hills to the barrios on the east side and the ghettos in South Central. Crime thrillers like L.A. Confidential and The Limey seem to do this better than straightforward dramas like Magnolia or Short Cuts, but this movie most strongly recalls a much lesser film than any of those — Lawrence Kasdan’s 1991 effort Grand Canyon. They’re both overwrought creations from writers who’ve obviously lived the sheltered Hollywood life for too long.
The characters are introduced to us one by one: Cheadle’s cop negotiating a ramshackle system; a D.A. (Brendan Fraser) whose wife (Sandra Bullock, clearly relishing the chance to play a hateful bitch) seethes with anger after being mugged; a couple of carjackers (Ludacris and Larenz Tate, an effective comedy team despite their clichéd characters) carrying on a running debate about how society keeps the black man down; an African-American Hollywood tv director (Terrence Howard) whose job subjects him to casual racism on a daily basis; a virulently racist cop (Matt Dillon) showing a new partner (Ryan Phillippe) the ropes; a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Peña, who turns in the best performance here) who’s just moved his family to a safer neighborhood; and a hotheaded Iranian store owner (Shaun Toub) with a shaky command of English and a belief that all Americans are out to cheat him — bad combination, that one.
The far-flung storylines are supposed to make us see the world from the point of view of each of these ethnically diverse characters in turn. The movie clearly wants to be a searing take on race relations in America. It achieves this in precisely one scene, when Cheadle’s detective talks to a white assistant D.A. (William Fichtner) who’s helping make a scapegoat of an abusive white cop who has killed an African-American fellow officer, who may have been crooked. The lawyer’s spiel justifying his actions is a masterpiece of obfuscation — his racial prejudice is easy to see, yet he believes he’s above such things, and his act is so smooth that he convinces himself it’s true. The rationalizing, blindness, and hypocrisy in this character feel very real.
That scene stands out in a film that otherwise has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Its other exchanges fall into the same depressing pattern of people getting mad at each other and revealing their prejudices. It’s like none of these characters has that impulse in their brain that tells them when they might be better off keeping their bigotry to themselves. All these racially charged confrontations generate a lot of heat but little light, and the repetition grows wearisome. Resorting to unbelievable coincidences and shameless emotional manipulation, the story contains dramatic ironies that would be shot down in a freshman creative writing course (one carjacker’s ultimate fate, the identity of the detective’s brother, the racist cop’s act of redemption). The violent encounter between the store owner and the locksmith is so unspeakably cheap that it has to be seen to be disbelieved.
The movie might have benefitted from a two-and-a-half to three-hour running time, allowing for more character development and making the plot contrivances seem less contrived. Then again, with Haggis’ relentless, self-important insistence that he’s telling the story of The Way We Live Now, maybe it’s better that the film is only 105 minutes. Hyperventilating and low on brain cells, Crash aims for the sky but only falls on its ass.

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