I'm not sure the best way to kick off a movie that wants to expose the dark heart of the true Los Angeles is to contrast it with "real cities" where "people walk, you brush past people, people bump into you," but that's what writer-director Paul Haggis does in the first few moments of "Crash," a grim, histrionic experiment in vehicular metaphor slaughter.
Graham Waters (Don Cheadle) and Ria (Jennifer Esposito), two detectives in love, are rear-ended on their way to a murder scene, and no sooner has the dazed Graham delivered his soliloquy on urban alienation ("I think we miss that sense of touch so much, we crash into each other just to feel something") Ria and the other driver, a middle-aged Korean woman, start loudly trading racial slurs without even a four-letter preamble. So much for the urban brotherhood of man: In "Crash," there's no getting through a fender bender, casual conversation, business transaction, phone call to mom or naked love romp without someone's ancestry taking a nasty beating.
From here, Haggis, a veteran television writer who wrote the script for "Million Dollar Baby," weaves no fewer than nine sets of characters into a suffocating tangle of ham-fisted ironies and belief-beggaring coincidences designed to reveal the latent racism that festers in the souls of all those who ever laid claim to a 310, 323, 213 or 818 area code. (Yes, you too.) The movie's structure has drawn comparisons to "Short Cuts" and "Magnolia," though it'll feel familiar to anyone who submits to regular cudgelings by "hard-hitting" network TV dramas that wield messages like bludgeons.
Every conflict in "Crash" — even lovers' quarrels — is racially motivated, and having hit on this key to human inhumanity, the director pursues the line with extreme (sorry) prejudice. There may be a million stories in the naked city, but there are something like 20 principal characters in this movie, and they expend 90 minutes of screen time on roughly one topic of conversation.
What really makes you want to screw up your eyes, clap your hands over your ears and belt out a show tune, though, is the nagging feeling that Haggis, a Canadian who has resided in this city for most of his adult life and who suffered a traumatic real-life encounter with a pair of armed carjackers a few years ago, seems to have experienced some misplaced guilt over his lingering low opinion of the gentlemen who took his car, followed by anger at the guilt, more guilt at the anger, and so on. I'm only guessing, of course, but upon meditating on the lives of his assailants — what were they like in their free time, when they weren't sticking guns in people's faces? — the director has written them a funny valentine. They are reborn in his imagination as a couple of charming, clever, philosophical, socially committed young car thieves who, when not busy jacking SUVs, enjoy ice hockey, Merle Haggard and liberating smuggled Asian sweatshop workers into the free market wonderland of downtown L.A.
Anthony (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and Peter (Larenz Tate), black men in their 20s, come out of an Italian restaurant in a ritzy neighborhood where Anthony gripes that the black waitress has treated them shabbily. When Peter points out that black men have a reputation for being bad tippers, Anthony confesses that he didn't leave one. This is just the first of about 1 1/2 hours worth of Buddhist conundrums on the nature of racist stereotypes. Anthony, a philosophical sort, sees racism lurking in every corner, even in the gesture of a white woman who takes her husband's arm as they pass.
"We're the only black people surrounded by a sea of over-caffeinated white people and a trigger-happy LAPD," he says. "Why aren't we scared?" It sounds like a good question, until the considerably more chilled-out Peter ripostes with: "Because we have guns?" and within seconds, Jean (Sandra Bullock) and Rick (Brendan Fraser) are scuttling along the sidewalk, having been divested of their Escalade.
If a generalization falls in the forest, and somebody who fits the description confirms it, is it really true? In the case of Rick and Jean, at least, it is. Rick happens to be the district attorney of Los Angeles County, a man apparently incapable of experiencing anything except through the prism of how it will play in the media. After the carjacking, the couple repair home to change the locks and spin the story. Rick frets that being robbed by black men will cost him either the black vote or the law-and-order vote and instructs his aides to locate an African American on whom he can pin a medal. The lonely, bitter, pathologically angry Jean, meanwhile, newly freed from the worry that her racism might have been unfounded, freaks out at the sight of the locksmith, whom she loudly takes for a gang member. Then she snaps at the maid.
It's around this point that the theme of the movie, neatly summarized by one of its characters and encapsulated in the tagline, begins to emerge. "You think you know who you are," the racist cop Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) tells his green, uninitiated partner. "You have no idea." Actually, in "Crash," you do. Whatever flimsy layers cover the characters' raging 24-hour xenophobia are swept away by the slightest breeze. It's painfully clear to anyone but Jean, for instance, exactly who Jean is. The sensitive, sloe-eyed locksmith, meanwhile, like the warm and friendly domestic, bears his symbolic nobility like a cross. Daniel (Michael Peña) bears Jean's insults silently, then goes home to comfort his traumatized child, who sleeps under the bed for fear of stray bullets. Soon, Daniel and his family will be victimized by a high-strung Persian patriarch, Farhad (Shaun Toub), driven to the edge by constant (and geographically inaccurate) race-baiting.
Add to this daisy chain of bigotry a Korean who sells illegal Thai and Cambodian workers to sweatshops, a black HMO worker who denies coverage to a sick man because the man's son is a racist, a white cop on his third African American murder, and a member of the D.A.'s office who wonders "what it is" with black people who "can't keep their hands out of the cookie jar," and the film's characters stop seeming like they've been culled from a random cross-section of the citizenry so much as cherry-picked from the top of the class at the Pat Buchanan School of International Relations.
The few characters who aren't culprits are victims, the most discouraging among them Cameron (Terrence Howard), a successful black television director. Cameron and his wife, Christine (Thandie Newton), are returning home from an awards show when they're pulled over by Dillon's racist Officer Ryan and his conflicted young partner, Officer Hansen (Ryan Phillippe). Ryan, a virulent racist, humiliates the director and his wife by viciously molesting her under threat of arrest.
At home, the couple implode. After hanging up the phone without reporting the assault ("Do you really think they'll care about what you have to say?" says Cameron), Christine lashes out at her husband. "The closest you ever got to being black was watching 'The Cosby Show,' " she yells. And he: "At least I didn't watch it with the rest of the equestrian team!" Of course, what with all this horseback riding and "Cosby Show" watching, you'd think they'd have a lawyer too. But "Crash" is too heavily invested in the idea of race as class to allow these two even the slightest sense of security, entitlement or surprise at being so crudely mishandled by the establishment of which they are a part. Instead, Cameron quietly unravels as his whole life reveals itself for the sham that it is. Even Tony Danza, who plays an actor on his show, cows him into humiliating a black costar. How's that for rock bottom?
As another critic once said about another movie bearing the same title, " 'Crash' isn't plotted, it's programmed.' " The logarithm is fairly simple: Money plus power plus a pale complexion equals total inhumanity. (Jean learns the hard way that her only friend in the world is the woman who cleans her house.) Power plus pallor minus money fares slightly better. (Ryan's bigotry is motivated by the suffering of his sick father, who lost his janitorial company when the city began giving preferential contracts to minority-owned businesses, and he gets his moment of slo-mo redemption.) Pallor minus power minus money plus small-town idealism (as embodied by Hansen) gets a kick in the head.
Any glimpse of emotional honesty comes courtesy of the actors, who manage to do a credible job despite the material. The smart, sexy spark between Esposito and Cheadle is all but extinguished by the airlessness of the script, and Cheadle manages to squeeze in some quietly affecting moment as the unloved son of a drug-addicted mother. Howard, an actor who radiates intelligence and sensitivity, fills out his maddeningly reductive character as best he can, though he's never given the chance to do anything but react to the trumped-up pressures around him.
Similarly, Newton is never allowed to come down from the ledge of hysteria, just as Bullock is systematically barred from entry into the human race. Tate and Bridges, as the loquacious carjackers, provide the only breath of fresh air in the movie, but given the film's bird's-eye point of view and its pretensions at objectivity, their charm feels assigned at random. The cast members more than pull their weight, it's just too bad they had to get together for this.
MPAA rating: R for language, sexual content and some violence.
Times guidelines: Crude as the language is, it pales next to the noxious message.
A Lions Gate Films release. Director Paul Haggis. Producers Cathy Schulman, Don Cheadle, Bob Yari. Executive producers Andrew Reimer, Tom Nunan, Jan Körbelin, Marina Grasic. Screenplay by Paul Haggis. Director of photography J. Michael Muro. Editor Hughes Winborne. Costume designer Linda Bass. Music Mark Isham. Production designer Laurence Bennett.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times