I'm not sure the best way to kick off a movie that wants to expose the dark heart of the true Los Angeles is to contrast it with "real cities" where "people walk, you brush past people, people bump into you," but that's what writer-director Paul Haggis does in the first few moments of "Crash," a grim, histrionic experiment in vehicular metaphor slaughter.
Graham Waters (Don Cheadle) and Ria (Jennifer Esposito), two detectives in love, are rear-ended on their way to a murder scene, and no sooner has the dazed Graham delivered his soliloquy on urban alienation ("I think we miss that sense of touch so much, we crash into each other just to feel something") Ria and the other driver, a middle-aged Korean woman, start loudly trading racial slurs without even a four-letter preamble. So much for the urban brotherhood of man: In "Crash," there's no getting through a fender bender, casual conversation, business transaction, phone call to mom or naked love romp without someone's ancestry taking a nasty beating.
From here, Haggis, a veteran television writer who wrote the script for "Million Dollar Baby," weaves no fewer than nine sets of characters into a suffocating tangle of ham-fisted ironies and belief-beggaring coincidences designed to reveal the latent racism that festers in the souls of all those who ever laid claim to a 310, 323, 213 or 818 area code. (Yes, you too.) The movie's structure has drawn comparisons to "Short Cuts" and "Magnolia," though it'll feel familiar to anyone who submits to regular cudgelings by "hard-hitting" network TV dramas that wield messages like bludgeons.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 11, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
"Crash" -- A review of "Crash" in Friday's Calendar section used the word "logarithm" to describe the movie's formulaic aspects. The word should have been algorithm.
Every conflict in "Crash" -- even lovers' quarrels -- is racially motivated, and having hit on this key to human inhumanity, the director pursues the line with extreme (sorry) prejudice. There may be a million stories in the naked city, but there are something like 20 principal characters in this movie, and they expend 90 minutes of screen time on roughly one topic of conversation.
What really makes you want to screw up your eyes, clap your hands over your ears and belt out a show tune, though, is the nagging feeling that Haggis, a Canadian who has resided in this city for most of his adult life and who suffered a traumatic real-life encounter with a pair of armed carjackers a few years ago, seems to have experienced some misplaced guilt over his lingering low opinion of the gentlemen who took his car, followed by anger at the guilt, more guilt at the anger, and so on. I'm only guessing, of course, but upon meditating on the lives of his assailants -- what were they like in their free time, when they weren't sticking guns in people's faces? -- the director has written them a funny valentine. They are reborn in his imagination as a couple of charming, clever, philosophical, socially committed young car thieves who, when not busy jacking SUVs, enjoy ice hockey, Merle Haggard and liberating smuggled Asian sweatshop workers into the free market wonderland of downtown L.A.
Anthony (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and Peter (Larenz Tate), black men in their 20s, come out of an Italian restaurant in a ritzy neighborhood where Anthony gripes that the black waitress has treated them shabbily. When Peter points out that black men have a reputation for being bad tippers, Anthony confesses that he didn't leave one. This is just the first of about 1 1/2 hours worth of Buddhist conundrums on the nature of racist stereotypes. Anthony, a philosophical sort, sees racism lurking in every corner, even in the gesture of a white woman who takes her husband's arm as they pass.
"We're the only black people surrounded by a sea of over-caffeinated white people and a trigger-happy LAPD," he says. "Why aren't we scared?" It sounds like a good question, until the considerably more chilled-out Peter ripostes with: "Because we have guns?" and within seconds, Jean (Sandra Bullock) and Rick (Brendan Fraser) are scuttling along the sidewalk, having been divested of their Escalade.
If a generalization falls in the forest, and somebody who fits the description confirms it, is it really true? In the case of Rick and Jean, at least, it is. Rick happens to be the district attorney of Los Angeles County, a man apparently incapable of experiencing anything except through the prism of how it will play in the media. After the carjacking, the couple repair home to change the locks and spin the story. Rick frets that being robbed by black men will cost him either the black vote or the law-and-order vote and instructs his aides to locate an African American on whom he can pin a medal. The lonely, bitter, pathologically angry Jean, meanwhile, newly freed from the worry that her racism might have been unfounded, freaks out at the sight of the locksmith, whom she loudly takes for a gang member. Then she snaps at the maid.