Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Director: Paul Haggis
Screenwriters: Paul Haggis
Starring: Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton
Meaningful Coincidences, with a capital “M,” are a staple of the multi-character drama with interweaving storylines — think Magnolia or Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. In Paul Haggis’ Crash, the Coincidences are a little too Meaningful, and come a bit too fast and furious. Magnolia managed to deflect criticism by making the plot’s improbabilities themselves an element of the plot; Thirteen Conversations evoked a sense of inevitability and determinism that made it all seem like God’s master plan, not the screenwriter’s. Here, the screenwriter — Haggis himself — is the star: everything is so very clever, and meant to instruct us. If you don’t take well to contrivance, you may get the urge to walk out.
With that said, Crash is fortunate enough to have a cast full of not just big names but engaging ones, and Haggis is undoubtedly skilled at setting up effective melodramatic vignettes, even if they are hopelessly inorganic. This sets up an interesting dynamic wherein I wound up scoffing all the while tears were slaloming down my cheeks; if something is monumentally stupid and yet still packs an emotional wallop, does that make it stupid no more? I asked that question several times during Crash and came up with the answer that yes, it’s probably still stupid, but that almost makes the achievement more impressive.
Each of the many plot threads prominently involves racism, but the movie takes an impossibly didactic approach; what I jotted down in my notebook was “this movie thinks I have never heard of racism before.” One story involves an upper-crust black couple who squabble after the wife (Thandie Newton) gets blatantly felt up by a sleazy, racist cop (Matt Dillon) on a traffic stop; it seems her husband (Terence Howard), reasonably afraid of being arrested or worse, did not take sufficient action to defend her. Fine, but then the movie splits into two equally moralizing plotlines, one involving the couple agonizing over whether being black means they have to shut up and take it, and the other about Dillon’s partner, played by Ryan Phillippe, agonizing over whether he can bring himself to work with someone who is that much of a bastard.
It’s the cumulative effect, you see. Each little story on its own probably wouldn’t come off as particularly haughty, arrogant, or pedantic, but put nearly a dozen of them together and it becomes fairly overwhelming. Imagine it: this plethora of characters not only has to interact and intertwine in impossible ways, but they also have to adhere to a single, inflexible theme. As anything more than a screenwriter’s exercise, it cannot possibly work.
The dichotomy of the offensively idiotic and somehow sublime manifests itself in other ways as well. (Spoiler on its way.) The first scene with Ludacris (yes, Ludacris, or as he is known here, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Larenz Tate, which sets up their characters as righteous, honest black men, one of whom is outraged that a white couple in downtown LA crosses the street upon seeing them, and then proceeds to reverse course and show them to be armed carjackers, is odious, exploitative and self-satisfied. But it is effective at the same time — startling, and maybe even briefly eye-opening. Haggis got what he came for, no doubt, but his methods are again questionable.
Crash also boasts Brendan Fraser, so good in everything that he does, Don Cheadle, Tony Danza (!), and Sandra Bullock, effective in a rare dramatic role. It is a decent film, extremely watchable, exciting in all the ways it’s supposed to be. But it’s made up out of whole cloth. As a screenwriter, Haggis reveals no lack of imagination and intelligence, but he has not yet figured out a way to work them into a real story.