Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Crash / * (R)

Jean: Sandra Bullock
Graham: Don Cheadle
Officer Ryan: Matt Dillon
Officer Hanson: Ryan Phillippe
Ria: Jennifer EspositoRick: Brendan Fraser
Cameron: Terrence HowardChristine: Thandie Newton
Anthony: Chris “Ludacris” Bridges
Peter Waters: Larenz Tate
Daniel: Michael Pena

Lions Gate Films presents a film directed by Paul Haggis. Written by Haggis and Robert Moresco. Running time: 100 min. Rated R (for language, sexual content and some violence).

What ever happened to the race issue? Is Spike Lee the only director allowed to make a film critiquing the Land of the Free on tolerance? No, in fact many other directors make comments here and there, but few are willing to take the modern race problem on in full engagement and Paul Haggis’s film Crash may be evidence as to why. Crash is an overwrought, schmaltzy, embarrassment of an indictment on the American condition of prejudice and racial hatred.

Film critics Roger Ebert and his former counterpart Gene Siskel often said the success of a movie lies not in what it is about, but how it is about.* Haggis’s intentions with this film are no doubt noble in nature. He tries to deal with the subtleties of racism in this country. The things people do without even thinking about it that have serious racist implications. Unfortunately, he fails to present these subtle ideas in a subtle manner. Instead he overstates his case against us inhumane beings with the heavy-handedness of pure dreck.

Haggis borrows director Robert Altman’s modus operandi of telling multiple interweaving character storylines to create a complete universe reflecting, in theory, several points of perspective. Haggis does not, however, impart Altman’s unique sense of reality on events. He imbues his film with an almost other worldly quality, as if it were some sort of fantasy, utilizing angelic voices on the soundtrack and numerous slow motion takes. It is as if he is going for some sort of operatic style, and he succeeds at that, but it seems to be in direct conflict with the material at hand.

Most of the film is presented in flashback. The film opens after a car accident involving two police detectives (Don Cheadle, Oceans Twelve and Jennifer Esposito, Taxi) and an Asian American woman. After we discover that these detectives are already at their crime scene where a young man has been discovered murdered at the edge of the highway, the film jumps back to the previous day and builds to the point at which the audience came in again. Usually a device like this has an importance in the overall picture of the story, but here it seems designed merely to conceal a surprise relationship between two of the film’s characters.

Like most of these character pastiche movies, all of these characters’ lives overlap and interlock. There are the two detectives who are also sleeping with each other, the upper class politician (Brendan Fraser, The Quiet American) and his wife (Sandra Bullock, Miss Congeniality), the wet-behind-the-ears idealist rookie cop (Ryan Phillippe, Gosford Park) and his bigoted veteran partner (Matt Dillon, City of Ghosts), the Hollywood affirmative action/ forced diversity black television director (Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow) and his trophy not-quite-so black country club wife (Thandie Newton, The Truth About Charlie), the two gang banger thieves (Chris Bridges, a.k.a. Ludacris and Larenz Tate, Ray) spouting modern racist pseudo-philosophy, a Persian family of shop owners who are mistaken for Arabs, and a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Pena, Million Dollar Baby) who has moved his family to a better neighborhood so his daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) doesn’t have to grow up with the threat of drive-by shootings. Save for Daniel, the locksmith, every one of these characters is blatantly and rudely racist in almost every situation in which the audience finds them. Raising their voices for all the hear when making some vulgar comment about someone of differing ethnicity or background, these characters seem almost proud of the fact that they can offend and alienate friends, family and strangers alike at any given moment. And all the characters are racist at the same level. There is very little variation of degree to the bigotry presented here.

Writers Haggis and Robert Moresco attempt to inject some humanity into these characters by filling out their lives with the tragedy of life and some sort of backwards morality arc, but this method can hardly compensate for the grossly exaggerated racist caricatures which he establishes for each from the beginning. Dillon’s veteran LAPD bigot is probably the best example of this. His character is the most proud of his racism although the others aspire to his level. First we see him essentially sexually assault the Hollywood TV director’s wife during a racially motivate traffic violation stop, then to punch the point home he berates a black desk jockey at his father’s health insurance provider’s office for the poor coverage, not implying, but outright stating a more qualified white employee would be better suited for the job of assisting clients. Then he becomes the hero cop when he saves a woman from a car accident who ironically is that same Hollywood television director’s wife he molested on the street earlier in the film. Aw! All is forgiven. Not really, but to show that the guy really does have it tough we also get to see him struggling with his father’s failing bodily functions throughout the film.

Phillippe’s pure-minded rookie offers a ray of hope along with the locksmith and his daughter, but it is fleeting and fake hope respectively. My hope is that Phillippe protested and threatened to drop out of the picture if the writers didn’t promise to at least attempt to explain his character’s utterly unmotivated turn from total tolerance to full out racial profiling at the turn of a radio station dial. But that explanation must have been cut from the film without Phillippe’s knowledge. Maybe he’ll sue. And what the filmmakers do with the fate of Daniel’s daughter is outright dramatic exploitation and should be taught in film school as something even lower than a cheap shot at the audience’s heartstrings. It probably is, but not with the negative connotation I infer here.

So often genre pictures, like comedies or horror films, are judged harshly for their exploitative nature. This comedy relies too heavily on fart jokes, or that horror flick just jolts its audience to death without providing any thought provoking terror. But it seems that drama is never as adroitly scrutinized. Yes, there are powerful performances. Yes, Haggis paints some beautiful pictures and establishes a connected universe. Yes, the film carries an important message about tolerance. But the heavy-handed nature of its delivery detracts from its effect. I can’t remember the last time the rotation muscles in my eyes got such a workout. I got dizzy my eyes were rolling around in their sockets so much during this film.

Are we just supposed to accept this bigotry as the way it is and always will be because there is not discrimination as to who is infected by it in this movie? If everyone were as intolerant as the people in this film, the state of race relations in this country would be much worse off than they are today. We might look like a country like Rwanda, where genocide knocks at the door on a daily basis. By the final shot in the film where another car accident brings the movie full circle and we see the health insurance desk jockey jump out of the ruined car spewing racial epithets at the driver who rear ended her, whose racial orientation is really a moot point by this stage in the film, I thought maybe I was supposed to applaud because she was a bigoted jackass too.

* I feel it should be noted, since I invoked his name in my negative review of this film that, Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert felt very differently about this film than I did. You can read his four star review by clicking his link located under my ratings chart.

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