Everyone's a Douchebag Except for 2 Pretty Young Women1
or, Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004)
Paul Haggis's wanna-be Structuralist film about racism in America (or Racism in America) is all of the following things:
and occasionally, in spite of itself, almost moving.
The McDonald's Happy Meal of Hollywood issue movies, it's a feel-good romp through a bunch of obnoxious racists of all races all over L.A. I suppose a film like this is supposed to make the audience feel better than the characters, nearly all of whom are so outwardly prejudiced as to be laughable. Or perhaps it's meant to show us what lies underneath our everyday dialogue, how the text of our words gives way to racist subtext at every turn (in which case, Haggis's script is written almost entirely in subtext). In case this linguistic structuralism isn't obvious enough, Haggis writes many different intertwining stories to remind us that we are all connected (in our racism, at least). Magnolia, at least, had human characters with real emotions and some directorial deftness to offset its ridiculous moments (which are certainly few compared to this).
Every character in Crash is so easy to hate. Everyone spouts racist dialogue at every turn, in most cases without any rationale for their prejudice. Only a few actors manage to deliver the lines with any 'fuck-you-I'm-racist' panache; mostly it's like being lectured. Which is another major flaw of the script/film (interchangeable here not because Haggis is writer and director, but because the shot selection here is as basic as your average TV movie); it feels like a long lecture on how bad people are. Lectures like these don't change any minds because the audiences are self-selected... no one buys tickets for a movie about the evils of racism if they are racist themselves (and even if they did, that's no apology for the film's serious cinematic shortcomings). It's an exercise in "we're so sophisticated" jerk-offerry of the kind that Hollywood specializes in giving awards to.
There are half a dozen, or perhaps a dozen, scenes that are supposed to be moving. At best, only two succeed, and only one of these really stays with me. The lesser of these involves the shooting of a little girl, which turns out not to be a shooting at all, to the surprise of the shooter as well as the victims. (This scene is undercut a few minutes later by the so-obvious-it's-painful camera's lingering over the box of bullets that loaded the gun - blanks). The only scene of any consequence in the film consists of Thandie Newton refusing and then consenting to be saved from a burning car by the racist cop who molested her earlier in the film.
Because of the name-brand cast, there are some good performances here for moments at a time. Terence Howard getting angry and talking back to LAPD officers; Newton resisting being pulled from the car by her former assailant; Don Cheadle delivering what might be the script's best line ("Well then I guess the big mystery is, who gathered all those remarkably different cultures together and taught them all how to park their cars on their lawns?"); Chris Bridges (Ludacris) ranting about racism and why he should be afraid walking in the white neighborhood (followed by the consciously stereotype-fulfilling action that explains why he's not). But neither that, nor the one or two successful moments of redemption in a script that intends many more, can save what remains a quarter-baked Oscar grab that inexplicably beat out the most moving American picture of my lifetime.
On the bright side, I'm now inspired to tackle my cinematic adaptation of Discipline and Punish.