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2005-05-20 07:22:38 (link)
Crash - Near Miss
[*last 2 paragraphs now added. Apologies for their previous absence -ed.]

If good intentions and ambitions were everything, then “Crash” would rank easily among the all-time greats. A sprawling ensemble piece chronicling the many faces and stories of racism in Los Angeles, the movie could have been the year’s most poignant and thought-provoking
if only it possessed any nuance or sense of its audience.

But with its bludgeoning thematic exposition and overbearingly bleak
idea of optimism, the lofty goals “Crash” sets for itself are instead
greeted with a staggeringly cynical and soul-crushing movie, and
perhaps the biggest misstep of any socially conscious movie
this decade.

In an out-of-sequence narrative of loosely interlocking storylines, the movie follows characters from different ethnic backgrounds as they interact with each other and the racial politics of the city in different ways. Among the milieu are a racist white cop and his conflicted younger partner (Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe); a black cop from a troubled family and his Hispanic partner/girlfriend (Don Cheadle and Jennifer Esposito); a pair of bickering, haphazard black crooks who contemplate the social implications of their crimes (Larenz Tate and Ludacris).

In the directorial debut from veteran TV writer and recent Oscar-nominee Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby” and TV’s “thirtysomething”), it isn’t the cast or
basic story structure that bring on the wreckage. The cast, other than a
desperately outmatched Sandra Bullock, acquits itself nicely. This should be expected, given that Cheadle and Phillippe have made nice careers out of outperforming whole ensembles of castmates. More surprising are the
stand-out performances from people like the little-known Michael Pena and Ludacris, who carries his second major screen role with great humor and

What marks the failure of “Crash” more than anything is a basic lack of perspective on the part of Haggis. He never seems to understand how the parts of his movie add up; that with each pounding display of racism and pain, the audience must shoulder a greater burden. And while many of the scenes and storylines are individually strong, the cumulative effect is not a bleak reflection of a deeply-flawed society, but a hopeless catalogue of a city and society that hardly seem worth saving. “Crash” feels too over-the-top to be fully poignant, and even if it were, would serve more as a reason for depression than as a call to action.

Haggis tries too hard to convey everything through his writing, which eliminates any trace of subtlety. This lowers the movie to the level of heavy-handed shock value and social diatribe that is normally found in third-tier Spike Lee work and the kind of empty narrative trickery found in movies like “Playing By Heart” and “Go.” What Haggis misses is that the most effective moments of “Crash” don’t come from his nakedly effortful dialogue, but from the little moments beyond his firm control—a resigned smile from Cheadle, a moment of comedic chemistry between Tate and Ludacris, and a powerful, wordless glance between Dillon and Thandie Newton.

Perhaps the most enduring image of “Crash” is the movie’s most impotent character, a television director who finds himself powerless in all areas of his life. Haggis clearly wrote this as an indictment of the earlier career he has abandoned, but in doing so created an all-too-perfect indictment of himself, as well. As a director, Haggis is strictly television: all close-ups and details, never able to form a cohesive vision of the bigger picture.

“Crash” is full of moments and details that work, but just like his director is micromanaged into powerlessness, Haggis’ power to manage the details makes him lose control of the greater picture. It’s a sad reflection of a great movie that didn’t get made.

by Amos Posner


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