Tuesday, May 03, 2005

People on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Might be easy to call it Magnolia with snow instead of frogs, or Grand Canyon with more guts, or Traffic sans smack, or Amores Perros in English. And maybe Crash is all of those.

What it isn't is timid or ironic, even though much of it is built on irony. But then again, "ironic" has taken on a second definition in pop culture: "bitter, harsh, unfortunate, without sentiment." Crash is not that kind of ironic. It is ironic in that Greek tragedy sense. And from there it drills for its humanity, which gushes from it like crude oil.

Crash has about 15 major players, and they are each their own people despite being stereotypes. Movies like Crash need to lean on stereotypes in order to get the message across. There is the pretentious, angry, spoiled housewife (Sandra Bullock) and her powerful, pragmatic, angry husband, the district attorney of Los Angeles (Brendan Fraser). The good-natured, green, angry rookie cop (Ryan Phillippe) and the sharp, racist, angry veteran cop (Matt Dillon). The two philosophizing angry street thugs (Larenz Tate and Ludacris). And so on.

Everyone's angry -- either at themselves or their partners or their fate. And when we're angry, we see red, and when we see red, we crash into each other, Crash says. Everyone in the movie crashes into each other, plot-wise, either by fender bender or by head-on collision, literally and figuratively. And all of it is perfectly believable and executed with as much dexterity and sensibility as possible.

The extent to which Crash succeeds is because of Paul Haggis, who wrote Million Dollar Baby, one of the finest screenplays ever. Haggis knows people (or film people at least) and he makes them interesting without pandering to our expectations. This is his directorial debut, and the film runs on more than just regular unleaded juice. It crackles and keeps a decent pace, hits a few bumps along the way, but keeps it together. I admire its earnestness. Crash is a message movie, which I usually resist: People need to wake up. We need to see not beyond color necessarily, but beyond our capacity to prejudge color. We need to breathe, relax, empathize. We need to WAKE UP, as Do the Right Thing screamed.

All right, all right already. We're human, and aren't we something? Us humans, man, we are wonderful and hideous, but aren't we at our best even when at our worst? The horror, the horror, the happiness, the happiness. And so on.

Though enough of Crash worked to keep me from gagging, enough of it didn't to keep me from fully digesting. There are some what-were-they-thinking moments, but those are delicately balanced with some real lovely sequences, one which involves Thandie Newton, playing the well-bred wife of a TV director, and Dillon, as the bigot cop. Let's just say it involves a car accident (surprise!), but the scene is amplified by what we know about these characters going in. It's striking, cathartic, moving, beautiful in its craftsmanship, etc. The urban twangs of Mark Isham's score add much.

This particular thread -- the Newton-Dillon one -- is the most real and resonant. Dillon and Newton are so good themselves that an entire other movie could've been built around them. The other characters would also be decent studies for a series of 10-minute movies about life in Los Angeles. Don Cheadle, who also produced, and Jennifer Esposito (why isn't she in more movies?) have a true and fascinating dynamic as two detectives. Terrence Howard, as Newton's husband, has a ballsy scene that turns the concept of racial profiling on its head. You end up caring most about Ryan Phillippe, which makes his story all the more shattering. Bullock has less screen time than any of these actors, but she proves she can play nasty without it looking like grandstanding. Ludacris and Larenz Tate's story is the axis of the movie, plot-wise and laugh-wise.

Then there is the "news peg," the storyline about the Persian family trying to make a living but constantly facing vitriol from the "Go home Osama" group (wasn't 9/11 the ultimate crash?). Shaun Toub and Bahar Soomekh play father and daughter and find themselves tangled up with another father and daughter, Michael Peña and Karina Arroyave, who are hispanic, and --

Well, I could go on. The movie's narrative is deep and wide, and it falls back on itself many times, and there are so many racial and moral conundrums, and so many awful and frustrating and beautiful parts that keep one-upping each other. Isn't that life, though? As the rap song that plays over the credits says, "Fate's a disease and we're all infected." Word.

1 comment:

Middento said...

Not to school you on graduation weekend and all, but FYI: while Spike's DTRT begins with Mr. Señor Love Daddy telling everyone to "wake up," the original reference (more helpful in this particular case too) is to the film immediately prior, SCHOOL DAZE. The similar cornucopia'd multiple plotline ends with Laurence Fishburne yelling "wake up," which is then reacted to in DTRT. SD isn't perfect, but is underrated in my opinion and worth a look.