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A daisy-chain civics lesson about race that makes Spike Lee seem pianissimo, Million Dollar Baby scripter Paul Haggis’s directorial debut, Crash, is ostensibly set in today’s L.A., a snake pit of compulsive racism the film is determined to flush out. But it’s a dated, what-about–”Ebony and Ivory” pessimist’s fantasy, in which virtually every plot point and line of dialogue is evidence of outlandish bigotry. (Whites, blacks, Asians, Chicanos, and Persians routinely spitting public slurs at each other? Not in post-millennium L.A., they don’t.) Hyperbolizing up a storm, Haggis entwines nearly a dozen major threads: Matt Dillon’s racist LAPD
cop, Sandra Bullock’s spoiled, immigrant-employing housewife, Don Cheadle’s thoughtful homicide detective (with partner-girlfriend Jennifer Esposito), Terrence Howard’s successful but shamed TV director, Ludacris’s politicized car thief, Shaun Toub’s handgun-buying Persian shopkeeper, etc. The characters pass each other in the night, only to (predictably) circle back later; the soundtrack’s portentous liturgies and the multiple montages full of brooding warn us over and over again that every affront and prejudicial slight will come home to roost tenfold.
Generalized racial profiling is a constant source of conflict, and it’s to Haggis’s credit that the dynamic is ethically ambivalent; his people’s presuppositions are as often right as they are wrong. Contrivances abound, but so do gray fields of moral relativism. Not surprisingly, Haggis’s film works best in poetical asides, as when Michael Peña’s stereotype-beset locksmith crawls under his hiding daughter’s bed to talk to her about distant gunshots, or when an act of vigilante rage climaxes with an apparent miracle. The film’s bruising peak is when Dillon’s bullethead struggles to rescue Thandie Newton’s rich SUV driver—whom he had sexually harassed on the roadside the night before—from a car wreck, a sequence that rises out of the movie’s pretensions like an aria. Full of well-observed supporting riffs,
Crash might’ve accumulated more frisson had it cast a clearer eye on how social tension actually plays.