Much ado about nothing… This is all that’s running through my head as I am walking out of the screening of Paul Haggis’ directorial debut, “Crash”.
As I am watching this movie, it suddenly occurred to me — I have seen it before. I saw it when I saw “Magnolia”, and “Traffic”, and “Grand Canyon”, etc. I suddenly realized that formulaic, cookie-cutter plotlines and freeze-dried characters weren’t the exclusive domain of the buddy action picture or Adam Sandler movie. It seems that the lack of creativity and voice can, and is, being applied to the message genre as well. In this case the message is racism, but it doesn’t matter because the sermon is the same.
Set in LA, where apparently all racism outside of Hazzard County occurs, first time director Haggis creates a universe that consists of about fifteen people of varying backgrounds and racial attitudes, whose lives intersect and crash (get it?) into one another forcing each to confront their own preconceptions and prejudices. We get to view the dirty racist LA cop (Matt Dillon) spew some subtle bile that would certainly not place a white hood over his head, but is just enough to make him unlikable. There’s also the naive rookie (Ryan Phillipe) as the fresh faced newbie who starts on the straight and narrow but whose conviction will be challenged in the end. Ludacris is the straight up hood with the chip on his shoulder about whitey. At the same time, the other side of the black community is being represented by seeing the compromises a successful black couple (Terrance Howard & Thadie Newton) may have had to make to remain in the mainstream. Additionally there are the yuppies (Brendon Frasier & Sandra Bullock) who must consider their own covert racial attitudes as they are confronted by their social and racial standing and the political correctness that is unspoken but prevalent. There are more characters of almost every flavor and creed, each representing a racial point of view and each designed straight from the catalog to tug at a certain heartstring in a certain way.
Back and forth the characters go, coincidentally running into each other in an obvious, but admittedly necessary plot device, interacting and revealing that they are people dealing with their situations based on what they know and their own individual experience. Take all of that and wrap an Enya-sounding soundtrack around it and you have the message genre formula.
The thing is, all of the actors in the ensemble do an amazing job, and each takes these very substantial, meaty roles and chews them up. But in the end, there is nothing new to say. Each character has good and bad in them. Each one is racist and each one isn’t. They, like we, are colored in shades of gray.
But deep inside the film, there is a better movie trying to get out. There are moments of true questions of abuse of authority that I would have loved to have seen more about. There are moments of tremendous tenderness on every level between a father and son, a wife and husband, between friends, between lovers… There are moments where I wanted to know more about how these very real, well-developed characters got to where they are and how they are managing when they find themselves exposed and vulnerable. These moments — these relationships may or may not have anything to do with racism, but it has everything to do with being human. These are the moments that I got caught up in and these are the moments that were given no more than a peek of life before the movie moved onto some other contrived opportunity to once again demonstrate a scene of racism.
In the end, the characters of “Crash”, like society, are filled with shades of gray. “Crash” seems to have a lot of volume, but not really a lot to say.