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Crash

Reviewed by Rick Groen

***

Directed by Paul Haggis

Written by Paul Haggis

and Bobby Moresco

Starring Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton

Classification: 14A

In the annals of American culture, the automobile is the Hertz of metaphors -- rent any meaning you want when you want it. Sexy, violent, fast, gridlocked, sleek, scrapped, powerful, polluting, no symbol is more malleable, and nowhere is it more prevalent than on the smoggy arteries of Los Angeles.

That's where Crash begins, on an uncharacteristically cold evening in December, with snow threatening and, less oddly, fenders bending. As two cars go bump in the night, an onlooker quickly ramps up the minor accident to major symbolic volume: "We're always behind this metal and glass," he explains, "and we miss a sense of touch so much that we crash into each other."

The thesis may be dubious, but the intent is clear. In this model, the car has become an emblem of alienation, of the divisive forces that, like L.A. itself, reduce our common humanity to an isolating sprawl of separate selves.

Here, the main alienating force is race, and racism. That barrier, the movie tacitly argues, has grown only larger in the post-9/11 climate, where fear of the "other," and the segregation it promotes, can now be rationalized under the star-spangled banner of security.

Paul Haggis, who co-wrote the script and makes his directing debut, has set himself the task of exploring these racial tensions. But that leaves him with a structural problem: How to devise a story that connects the inherently disconnected, that brings together a disparate group of people who wouldn't normally meet. As in other films set amid the amorphousness of Los Angeles -- P. T. Anderson's Magnolia, Robert Altman's Short Cuts, Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon -- his solution is to counter the sprawling milieu with a sprawling cast shoehorned into a connect-the-dot plot. In short, cue the coincidences and keep them coming.

Which brings us to the opening frame. A car accident, after all, is a form of coincidence, of lines fatefully intersecting. From there, Haggis bends back one full day to unravel the tangled threads leading to the crash, and, in turn, the tangle justifies the existence of his varied and polyglot ensemble.

At the site of the fender-bender, which involves an Asian driver whose skills are stereotypically pilloried, we meet a black detective (Don Cheadle) and his Latino partner-cum-lover (Jennifer Esposito), who just happen to be there investigating an adjacent crime scene.

Then the flashback leads to an Iranian man buying a gun from a belligerent clerk in order to protect himself from ethnic threats and his store from further robberies.

Cut to a pair of black guys (Larenz Tate and Ludacris) strolling down the street in an upper-class white neighbourhood, rightly complaining about their racist treatment at the hands of the gentry, including the suspicious glances directed their way by an approaching couple (Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser). Our sympathy is with them, until, in mid-complaint, they brazenly steal the couple's SUV. Sympathy shifts to Bullock's frightened victim, until, back in her posh home, she unleashes a tirade against the Mexican American hired to replace the door locks, convinced that he will keep an extra key for himself and his thieving friends.

The script follows the locksmith back to his own house, where he proves to be a doting father worried himself about local crime. His work then takes him to the shop of the anxious Iranian, whereupon the two persecuted minority members proceed to persecute each other.

Meanwhile, on the trail of the stolen SUV, a white cop (Matt Dillon) stops, harasses and abuses an affluent black couple (Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard) just because he can. We look on appalled, and so does the cop's partner (Ryan Phillippe), who, seeking advice from a superior officer, is told that levelling charges of racism is not a good career move. The superior officer is black.

There's more, much more, as the plot's thread weaves its calculated way from character to character, from dot to dot. All of this is nicely acted, and some of it packs quite an emotional punch.

The harassment sequence, for example, is a stunning tableau and a disturbing illustration of racism's corrosive chemistry, eating away at the victims until they too are divided, turning humiliated wives against emasculated husbands.

But a follow-up scene, exploring the roots of the cop's bigotry, plays like clumsy exposition. And a subsequent coincidence, which gives the same bigot a chance to evolve from villain to hero, is cheaply ironic at best and morally objectionable at worst. In the name of rounding out the character, it implies that people are not racist by choice but by circumstance -- change the situation and they change their stripes.

Among virtually everyone in this microcosm, slurs and stereotypes and suspicions and fear and anger abound, made all the more difficult to transcend by the hard fact that sometimes the suspicions are not illusory but justified.

Of course, transcendence remains the goal, and the film preaches the gospel of tolerance. To his credit, however, Haggis's brand of liberalism is neither knee-jerk nor blind -- he understands the social complexity. But in trying to sound the issue's depths, the movie itself is guilty of oscillating between reality and artifice, skipping from the credible to the contrived.

That disparity -- this is a picture that can move you and annoy you in a span of seconds -- is directly traceable to the plot's prolific use of coincidence. For a storyteller, especially one on a sociological mission, coincidences can be profound, a telling indicator of how we're all fatefully connected under the skin, and coincidences can be hoary, a cheesy exercise in manipulation that alienates the viewer even as it links the characters.

They're both in this case, and the result is a film where blisteringly naturalistic drama bumps up against sentimentally arch melodrama (that's the biggest collision in Crash). Haggis showed the same tendency in his script for Million Dollar Baby, yet there it was better hidden under a simpler narrative. Here, the tendency has gotten magnified right along with his thematic ambitions.

Still, there's bravery in ambition, and enough grasp in Haggis's reach to pull us in. Racial tensions are a central, and expanding, woe in American life but -- Spike Lee's lectures aside -- they are essentially ignored on the American screen, which prefers to cocoon the audience in pricey vehicles that circle safe tracks. By contrast, Crash drives to the conflicted heart of a nation's continuing malaise -- to occasionally question its navigation is not to deny the courage of the trip.