Paul Haggis, the writer-director-producer-songwriter of “Crash”, also created the Chuck Norris TV series “Walker, Texas Ranger” and the “kindly mountie in America” series “Due South”. I mention these to place this film in its appropriate, lowbrow context. “Crash” is the sort of film that rather desperately wants to be edgy and provocative, but never quite earns the plump portentousness that wobbles onto the screen.
Confusingly sharing a title with the leg-shagging JG Ballard adaptation, “Crash” is a look at racial stereotypes and attitudes in contemporary Los Angeles. Narratively, the film comes from the “more is more” tradition of “Magnolia” and “Love, Actually”. Roughly thirty stories (roughly) weave in and out of each other, building up a picture of confusing times in American race relations:-
Black people are no longer slaves, white people are confused about this.
Except it’s more complicated than this; white people hate black people, black people hate white people, black people hate other black people, white people hate Hispanic and Persian people because they’re a bit like black people, Persian people hate locksmiths and insurance representatives, and white people hate themselves.
So, it’s not really that much more complicated. In fact, it’s much, much more simple. Everyone hates everybody else.
The film begins with a rather noble speech by the great Don Cheadle:- “In LA, nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” LA is obviously meant to be a character in the film, but it comes across as a rather horrible character, a huge uncle that sits in the corner of the room and really depresses you. In this way, “Crash” is an excellent advert for upping sticks and moving to a “free love” hippy commune in the middle of nowhere, where you can just, you know, get along with people.
In this film, everything is ‘complicated’, and the film wears its ‘complicated’ colours with pride. Two young black men have an intelligent discussion about how they represent educated black youth, and how white people in the upper-class area they find themselves in should not be afraid of them, and THEN STEAL A CAR! A rich white woman is openly dismissive of her Hispanic home-help, and THEN SAYS THAT SHE’S THE ONLY FRIEND SHE HAS! A black police officer is offered a promotion BECAUSE HE’S BLACK and then is blackmailed into saying something against some guy BECAUSE THE GUY IS WHITE and if the police officer doesn’t say it, HIS BROTHER WILL BE TOTALLY ARRESTED because HE’S BLACK and his MOTHER IS ON DRUGS and HAS NO GROCERIES! This constant pride in being ‘complicated’ is exceptionally wearing. This is even before we get to the racist white policeman rescuing a black woman he had previously molested from a fire, which could probably have been a fun episode of “Due South”.
Rather than being insightful, the film’s fragmented narrative allows some really sloppy writing. Characters are reduced to stereotypes, as they need to be brought in quickly and finished quickly. Stories tend to follow a pattern:- the person is unhappy, they are shot or they shoot somebody, they are more unhappy as a result. The story that resonated most for me was the deeply odd story about the Persian man trying to get his revenge on a locksmith, but that wasn’t really about racial tension, it was more about the trials of being a locksmith. Quid pro quo.
One fortunate thing that the film does is make you not hate its cast. If someone suggested you went to see a film with Ryan Phillipe, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser and Thandie Newton, you’d probably expect a horribly bland comedy, but none of these are given much time to be offensive. Don Cheadle is welcomingly passive, and there’s a standout performance by the rapper Ludacris, who has a nice speech about how hip-hop demeans black people. Oooh. Irony. Apparently Tony Danza from “Taxi” and the woman who plays Deanna Troi are also in this film. I have no idea where.
So, yes. “Crash”. I probably enjoyed it more than watching someone shagging a leg, but I enjoyed it less than “The Wedding Crashers”, which – considering how important the film wanted to be – is a rather damning state of affairs.