by David Cornelius
“Crash” is two hours of Paul Haggis yelling in your ear. About nothing.Haggis, who co-wrote “Crash” (with Bobby Moresco) and who makes his directorial debut here, is best known for his screenplay for “Million Dollar Baby.” Several critics before me have already noted how “Baby” was subtle in ways “Crash” could never dream of being, and isn’t it odd how the same writer could create two vastly different works. This is not entirely true, however; “Baby” was quiet, yes, but not at all subtle. Its story was told in broad strokes (the selfish hick family, the lovably dumb boxer wannabe). What made “Baby” so wonderful is that although it worked in broad strokes, it handled those strokes with a remarkable elegance, a grace that allowed the characters to grow within their bold-outlined world.
"Obnoxious, hollow, and not at all as smart or important as it thinks it is."
“Crash,” meanwhile, makes no room for such things as character development. It is too concerned with talking down to us, taking the audience for morons, assuming that the only way to deliver a Very Important Message is to deliver characters that are not anything more than vague stereotypes. I do not even recall the characters’ names. All I remember is that we met Bigot Cop, Nice Cop, Obnoxious White Lady, Uptight Politician, White-Hating Thug, Non-White-Hating Thug, and so on, and so on. These characters are so embarrassingly generic and superficial that you might wonder why Haggis just didn’t cast the Village People instead. Ah, look, it’s Leather Biker Guy, and he’s mad at Gay Sailor. With Matt Dillon as the Indian Chief!
The film purports itself as grand commentary on modern race relations in America, and Haggis feels that the best way to discuss racism in all its forms is to put it right there in the open, cold and ugly and offensive and staring right at you. This may be true, but Haggis has no clue what to do with this idea.
And so we get a collection of underdeveloped characters who talk in ways very few people actually do - the gimmick being that these characters have no filters, and so they immediately say what an ordinary person, hiding his prejudices under the guise of decency and manners, would only be thinking. This is intended to shock the viewer, and right off the bat, too. One of the first things we see is Jennifer Esposito, whose car was just rear-ended by an older Asian woman, go off on a tirade about the woman’s thick accent. This is soon followed by a shop owner who, upon hearing two Persian customers speak to each other in their native tongue, calls them “Osama” and berates them for 9/11.
When not spouting racial slurs on a constant loop, the characters debate about the nature of prejudice. Again, it does not matter who actually speaks like this so frequently (I wonder if we’re just following a series of people with some sort of clinical conversational dysfunction, as though they are simply unable to chat about the weather or sports or whatever); Haggis is so intent on getting the audience talking after the movie’s over that he crams every corner of his film with commentary, never mind if it actually fits.
(Here is as good place as any to mention that most of the cast, either by choice or by direction, works in either an obnoxious whine, a piercing screech, or some combination of the two. While Terrence Howard, Larenz Tate, and rapper Ludacris do the best they can with such limp material, the rest of the performers are shrill and unwatchable. Dillon, Sandra Bullock, Ryan Phillippe, and Brendan Fraser look like they’re reading from cue cards, while the consistently horrible Thandie Newton’s wretched overacting threatens to take the film into a level of camp that would be hilarious if it weren’t so dismal.)
And then, alas, there is the in-your-face cleverness of the piece. Haggis structures his film to be a series of overlapping storylines held together by the flimsiest of coincidences, obviously modeled after such works as “Short Cuts,” “Grand Canyon” and “Magnolia.” But Haggis is no Robert Altman, and his web is consistently unbelievable, reliant on connections that never actually work. (At one point I was convinced that only nine people live in the entire greater Los Angeles area. How else to explain why they keep bumping into each other over and over again?) And with only blank templates instead of interesting characters filling up the plot, there’s no real reason to become involved with this ever-growing human tangle.
This, however, is the least of Haggis’ grasps at cunning. His screenplay tries - too often - to trick the viewer. Consider the two young black men whom we first meet as they are arguing about racism; one grumbles about whites always thinking he’s out to steal from them, a comment which is immediately followed by him carjacking a white couple. “Ha ha!” Haggis cries into the night. “See what I did there? A little misdirection! Now you’ll be talking about how maybe some prejudices are actually well founded, but you’ll hate yourself for thinking such things. Aren’t I the smart little puppet master?”
(My friend John, a man so much smarter than I, described the goings-on this way: “It’s not about race at all. It’s about Paul Haggis’ infatuation with his own cleverness, or what passes for cleverness when you're not actually very clever.” As I said, he is much smarter than I.)
Haggis struggles to invent new ways of manipulating the audience, and in one instance, he backs himself into an impossible corner. You see, in one scene, we’re led to believe that a character has been shot. We even get the slo-mo and the sweeping music and the angst and grief and et cetera. And we’re told - no, commanded - to feel the loss. But then he reveals that there was a misfire, the character is in fact unharmed. Meaning, of course, that Haggis wants to have a Big Dramatic Moment without having to follow through in dealing with the emotional weight of it.
Anyway, later in the film, we get a very similar incident. A flash of gunfire, someone’s been shot. Now, here’s the dilemma: If Haggis lets the supposed victim live, he’s just recycling a bit of cheap manipulation, and it doesn’t work. But if he lets the victim die, then the earlier scene was only included as a set-up to help make this scene even more manipulative (which also goes to make the first scene even more manipulative by extension). Damned if you do, and so on.
There is also the matter of yet another character suddenly getting injured, for no real reason than to have that character get injured, surprising the viewer and getting a quick gasp moment. This scene and the barely-there follow-up it (barely) requires have nothing to do with the plot, nothing to do with the development of anything, and yet it is here. Why? So Haggis can pull one more shock from the audience. It’s cheap and pointless and quite ridiculous. (As is the entire out-of-nowhere subplot about the Asian slaves, and the goofy showdown between a beleaguered Terrence Howard and the LAPD - which, of course, ends in a way no actual showdown would ever end, ever, ever, ever - and… well, you get the idea.)
But oh, it’s so smart, you see, because it is daring in its discussions on the underlying problems of a nation. If this is the case, though, why end on such an up note? Haggis actually has the unmitigated gall to decide to end his story with a slight fender bender, in which a black woman and an Asian woman emerge from their cars, comically screaming, and we’re actually supposed to chuckle and think, “well, here they go again, those kooky bigots!” Oh, and because this is not all, we also get to hear - as the finale of this supposedly moving, serious, insightful, deeply political work - a rump-shakin’ hip hop club tune from Ludacris play on the soundtrack. I do believe my first thought here was, and I quote: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”Backtracking to that final shot of the fender bender. This last jokey bit happens solely because we are told in a lengthy (and very, very, very serious) opening monologue that because modern living keeps us apart, “we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” This is that Very Important Message of the movie, that lack of contact has developed withdrawn personalities that feed off of prejudices. It is the kind of thing that sounds all serious and profound on the surface, but there’s absolutely nothing underneath. It’s a sentiment that’s as shallow as the film that features it. For all its posturing and scheming and false fronts, “Crash” is unbearably empty.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=10448&reviewer=392
originally posted: 03/05/06 15:25:32