I like my angst (and controversial) cinema served up in many forms; subtle, in-your-face, a hybrid, all are fine as long as the direction is self-assured and authoritative. Larry Clark’s Bully (2001) split audiences with its no-holds-barred presentation of suburban violence and lack of moralistic values, but the directorial conviction is so unrelenting, its imagery so authentically graphic, that it manages to be hypnotically bloody without feeling gratuitous, hypnotically powerful without overexertion or force-feeding on Clark’s part. Bully’s dissenters may sing a different tune, but for this reviewer—one who was mixed on Kids (1998) when he saw it back in college—it was an extremely powerful experience. I bring this up because Paul Haggis’ Crash (2005), an intriguing failure, lacks the follow-through (or visual pizzazz) to make the overly obvious approach to touchy issues (teen bloodshed in Bully, race relations in Crash) successful. Following an eclectic group of homosapiens—the high-powered politician Rick (a surprisingly passable Brendan Fraser) & his paranoid, shallow wife Jean (Sandra Bullock); the Hispanic locksmith Daniel (Million Dollar Baby’s Michael Peña); the chain-smoking black cop Graham (Don Cheadle); the weary Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) and his wide-eyed partner Officer Hanson (an impressive Ryan Phillipe); the black filmmaker Cameron (Terrence Howard) and his fierce wife Christine (Thandie Newton); the Persian immigrant Farhad (Shaun Taub), who appears to think the USA exists strictly to ostracize him from acceptance; and a pair of thugs, Anthony and Peter (rapper Ludacris and Larenz Tate), one of whom welcomes their criminal ways, but eschews any sort of black-on-black activities—Crash attempts to mold them together into a mass statement about societal values, among other things. To wit:
Crash has several objectives, its primary one being a sweeping indictment of race relations in America. Haggis’ point is clear: there’s racism everywhere, in everyone—those who flaunt it are often secretly tolerant (envious, even); those who act high-and-mighty often secretly harbor some level of disdain. As a topic matter, there’s some serious potential here, but Haggis doesn’t carry it nearly far enough and as a result, Crash ends up not having anything to say despite the obvious manner in which Haggis chooses to say it! While numerous individual sequences border on excellence—Phillipe’s character in particular feels very well fleshed out, despite the meager amounts of time he’s actually on screen—there’s too shallow a treatment of Crash’ many players for the film to tie together well. Bullock’s joust with a fear of minorities (after a stick-up) and subsequent realization that she was *gasp* unjust in her concerns is a particularly vivid example of poor writing on Haggis’ part (he penned the screenplay in addition to his directorial duties); because her segment isn’t given enough attention, her revelation that all non-Whites aren’t actually the Devil reincarnated (in the form of an embrace for her Hispanic maid) comes off as eye-rolling nonsense. Frankly, Haggis would have benefited from a few less storylines: he wrote the superb Million Dollar Baby screenplay, and seems much more at home focusing extensively on a few strongly developed characters, rather than a potpourri of underutilized ones. While it’s hard not to admire Haggis’ ambition here, his lofty aspirations sapped Crash of any real ingenuity or emotional punch.
Aspects of Crash appear to be a rush-job: why is the Persian family speaking English when nobody whose not of their culture is around, for instance? Frequent moments are unbearably hokey (the culmination of the “invisible cloak” storyline, for instance; its initial appearance is certainly cheesy, but charming enough to get away with it), and these moments prevent Crash from attaining any sort of consistent flow. Most of these glitches stem from the script, as the acting is mostly stellar; somewhat startling, considering it stars a slew of folks I generally can’t stomach. Standouts include the aforementioned Phillipe, Terrence Howard, and Ludacris (yes, really), who fills his character with an honest confusion that’s befitting of somehow with such awful ideals. Then again, perhaps he’s just really a confused being…
Oddly, the film that Crash reminded me of most isn’t Bully, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia; an ambitious intertwining of lives that are brought together at the end by an extremely, er, *unlikely* event (heavy snow in Los Angeles in Crash, raining frogs in Magnolia). Unlike Magnolia, though, Crash doesn’t explore the inner workings of its numerous characters in enough detail to justify such an apocalyptic, symbolic wrap-up. It’s about 110 minutes, which just isn’t enough to penetrate so many fragile, fucked-up exteriors. In fairness, Crash is far from an abomination: there’s a clever use of time-shift; as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, it’s an interesting misfire; and its occasional outstanding scenes make it compulsively watchable. It’s just a shame they feel like mismatched pieces in a potentially beautiful jigsaw puzzle.