Review by Adam Blair

Directed by Paul Haggis

Screenplay by Haggis and Robert Moresco; story by Haggis

Starring Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner. Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Thandie Newton, Michael Pena, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Shaun Toub, with Tony Danza, Keith David, Loretta Devine, Bahar Soomekh, Karina Arroyave, Bruce Kirby and Beverly Todd

Rated R; 113 minutes

Crash is the kind of movie that puts ordinary viewers — not to mention reviewers — in a bind. It’s well-meaning, serious, “adult” and addresses one of the thorniest and least-talked-about issues in America: pervasive racism and the hate and fear it begets and is fed by. It’s also generally well-acted, and certain scenes can’t help but touch you. Crash is all of these things while simultaneously being mechanical, melodramatic and way too conveniently “ironic,” with a simplistic view of human nature that vitiates much of its impact as both a social statement and as a dramatic film.

In Los Angeles, again serving as a microcosm of our anomic, atomized society (see Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia— I mean, you can see it, I stopped watching after an hour because the incessant background music was driving me bonkers), we are led to believe by director and co-screenwriter Paul Haggis that everybody is a racist. Whites. Blacks. Asians. Hispanics. Middle Easterners. Very few of the characters are shown as having pets, but we would have to assume that cats, dogs and tropical fish are also irretrievably and disgustingly racist, or in their cases speciesist.

I guess this is an advance on Grand Canyon, a 1991 dull spasm of white liberal guilt from Lawrence Kasdan. In that film, all the white characters are either jerks or fools (sometimes both), while the two black characters, played by Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard, are practically saints in early Sidney Poitier mode. Of course, this also makes them dull as dishwater. It’s what I call the First Major (Blank) Character syndrome: for example, when gay male characters graduated from hissy-fit-throwing comic relief, pathetic victims of gay-bashing and homicidal maniacs, Hollywood’s creative people attempted to make up for decades of hurtful stereotyping by making their First Major Gay Character as bright, cheerful, bland and inoffensive as possible.

In Crash, “everyone’s a little bit racist,” as the song from Broadway’s Avenue Q goes, but unlike that lighthearted lyric, they do go around committing hate crimes. In one of the more involving interlocking plots, cop Matt Dillon stops a high-end SUV when he sees what appears to be a white woman orally servicing a black man. It’s actually light-skinned Thandie Newton indulging in some drunken, frisky foreplay with her TV director husband, played by Terrence Howard. Dillon crudely molests Newton as husband Howard and Dillon’s partner Ryan Phillippe look on in impotent horror.

Dillon at least admits he’s a racist, and explains that he’s carrying a chip because a black HMO administrator (Loretta Devine) won’t approve coverage for Dillon’s sick dad (Bruce Kirby) to see a specialist. To add more weight to Dillon’s chip, Kirby’s janitorial business, which employed dozens of “you people,” as Dillon refers to blacks, was ruined practically overnight when the city gave its cleaning contracts to minority-owned businesses. Normally I hate this type of 1940s-50s Problem Film explanation (“You’re a thief because your mother never showed you any love as a child.” “You’re right, doctor! I’m cured!”) but it’s actually humanizing in this context.

The Dillon-Newton-Howard-Devine plot thread is one of the few where there seems to be at least some kind of character-based frustration for the characters’ actions. In large part because it’s written with some depth, it’s among the best-acted of the multiple vignettes. Matt Dillon continues to be an underrated actor: he’s adept at dark comedy (To Die For), farce (There’s Something About Mary), and drama. Casting directors take note.

Note that I said character-based frustrations, not sociologically-based ones. Los Angeles District Attorney Brendan Fraser and rich-bitch wife Sandra Bullock, who are carjacked early in the film, are crassly racist caricatures because, well, what else could they be? He’s concerned about how being carjacked by two black guys will affect his career; she’s convinced the Hispanic locksmith installing new locks on their house after the carjacking (Michael Pena) is a gang member who will be selling their keys to his “amigos.” Haggis’ direction makes clear that his color-sensitive ambitions and her racist tirade are not functions of their just having been crime victims but of their sick, sick souls.

Even the characters who try to overcome their programmatic racism and, to quote the title of a much better film on the topic, Do the Right Thing, are doomed to failure in Haggis’ worldview. Homicide detective Don Cheadle (another excellent performance — we can almost see what he’s thinking at any given moment) fails to rescue his doomed brother (Larenz Tate, one of the carjackers) not because he’s not his brother’s keeper but because he’s forgotten his black roots, and also because he didn’t listen to his drug-addicted mama (Beverly Todd). Dillon’s partner Phillippe tries to do something nice by picking up a black hitchhiker and ends up a murderer.

I realize Haggis is trying to make a bigger statement by interweaving all the plots and characters. He’s saying we are all our brothers’ keepers, that we’re all interconnected in ways we can’t fathom, that even the best of us are capable of horrifying acts of brutality while the worst of us can show uncommon bravery. Noble sentiments all. But Crash is so unrelenting and so mechanistic that, for me, it had a strange effect. Instead of waking me up to my own racism, I felt almost justified: “I may think Asians are bad drivers but I don’t go around blowing their heads off.” Silly and simplistic, I know. But so is boiling everything and everyone down to its lowest common denominator. If we’re all so sick that sickness seems normal, how can we ever hope to cure ourselves?

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