Crash

May, 2005, Drama

Paul Haggis, the Canadian television writer who wrote the screenplay for last year's multi-award-winning Million Dollar Baby debuts as a director here, working from his own story and script. Employing an impressive list of Hollywood actors, (Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, Brendan Fraser, etc.) and utilizing the gritty/handsome urban look of cinematographer James Muro, (Open Range) Haggis provides nearly two hours of pungent dialogue, a half dozen memorable performances and scores of arresting scenes, all tackling big themes--racism, alienation, the absurdity inherent in the random quality of urban life and the myriad ways in which we so often fail to adequately convey what we're really feeling. Unfortunately, when the lights go up, these parts have exceeded the sum of the whole. 

Working with a series of interlocking storylines, Haggis covers a day and a half in the lives of a handful of Los Angles police officers, exploring how their personalities - - on and off duty - - intersect with a random sampling of L.A. citizenry, from public officials to bitchy housewives to hardworking immigrants to car-jackers. Racial stereotyping fuels a number of these related stories and the writer/director is an equal ethnicity offender, putting profanely acidic lines into the mouths of the educated and uneducated alike. Even the most offensive of Haggis' characters however, posses the courage "do right" in certain circumstances; but all too often, these moments of moral rectitude come packed inside personal styles programmed to bring out the very worst in everyone else. 

From grand theft auto to attempted armed robbery, callous manipulation of the facts by election-hungry public officials to police corruption, disgusting human trafficking to ugly marital discord, the abrasive qualities of the people who inhabit Haggis' dramatic sketches possess the capacity to quickly get under an audience's skin. Unfortunately, these randomly connected lives don't ultimately add up to anything with cohesive or lasting impact. Instead of using his demonstrated ability to write genuinely credible dialogue in support of honest characters, Haggis' crates clichés-- despite the often-penetrating work of his highly competent cast. 

Does the Haggis reach exceed its grasp? In Million Dollar Baby, his lean dialogue helped make three ordinary characters profoundly luminous; despite that same level of quality in this panoramic examination of urban angst, Haggis produces precisely the opposite effect. That said, there's enough splendid, (if frequently profane) dialogue and interesting plot twists to make Crash worth a trip to the theater, if only to frame your own reaction to the issues it ultimately mishandles.

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