Crash is that most unusual of mass market movies–one made from a screenplay written on spec by a well-estasblished writer, in this case Paul Haggis. It’s the same route Haggis took with the brilliant Million Dollar Baby: Write the screenplay first, get a couple of terrific actors interested, and then package the deal. As it is, Crash was made before Million Dollar Baby, but is only going into distribution now. It was produced on a bare-bones budget (although it sure doesn’t look it) and, despite its flaws, it is an engrossing, thoughtful film.
Placed in Los Angeles and telling the stories of a group of diverse characters whose paths cross,Crash immediately calls to mind Robert Altman’s fine Short Cuts, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, and Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon. All three films capture the uneasy strangeness of L.A–the diversity of the city’s racial and ethnic populations spread out in an urban environment where people are unlikely to mix, where there’s a constant undercurrent of incipient conflict, where Hollywood dreams more often than not turn into ashes.
Haggis, who also directed, is particularly focused here on both the broad and the subtle play of ethnic and racial distrust, fear, misunderstanding and prejudice. The district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his wife (Sandra Bullock) are carjacked by a couple of Black thugs and the D.A.’s main concern is that, as a result of the publicity, he will alienate either the Black vote or the law-and-order voters. A Black film director (Terrence Howard) and his wife (elegant Thandie Newton) are stopped in their SUV by a couple of white policemen, one of whom (Matt Dylan) is an unrepentant racist who turns a frisking of the wife into a sexual molestation and a humiliation of her husband. The other cop, a rookie (Ryan Philippe), disapproves of his partner’s behavior and asks for a transfer, but gets a hard time from his Black lieutenant who is unwilling to make waves and jeopardize his career.
A Black detective (Don Cheadle, again delivering a finely modulated performance) is sleeping with his Latina partner. He calls her Mexican, thoughtlessly lumping together all Latino identities, and she angrily reminds him that her mother is Puerto Rican and her father is Salvadoran. Cheadle is dealing with his mother who has Alzheimer’s and Dylan is dealing with his father who is seriously ill. Further incidents include an Iranian shopkeeper, an Asian couple and Cambodian victims of a slave trade.
Haggis’ broad canvas provides the vehicle for him to explore the many ways that prejudice leads to open conflict. He delivers his intriguing story with an edgy tension growing out of the frustrations and anxieties of these urban people and he makes sure to demonstrate that even bigots can be heroes and good guys can go astray. He has a first rate ear for the way people speak and he also draws first rate performances from the cast, with the notable exception of Brendan Fraser who is stiff and unconvincing as the D.A.
But a couple of problems beset the film and keep it from being as effective as it should be. The script is overloaded with coincidences, one after another, that undermine the powerful sense of dramatic verisimilitude that Haggis establishes. Similarly, the glaringly schematic structure (the wealthy Black couple, the wealthy white couple; the parallel guys with aging parents and the like) further detracts from a sense of reality. Haggis suggests a touch of magical realism in a couple of spots (snow in L.A.; a little Black girl with seemingly magical powers), but not enough to transport the film into the realm of fable. The straddling of styles weakens, but doesn’t destroy a strong film that outshines most of what comes out of Hollywood these days.