By Joe Lozito
How many plot contrivances can fit in one film? Well, if it's written by Paul Haggis, the man behind the Oscar winning "Million Dollar Baby", that answer is "as many as you want".
" is one of those ensemble movies that follow several intersecting stories with characters crisscrossing and relationships revealed along the way. It's like a big game of "Six Degrees of Separation". As such, you need to entertain a certain suspension of disbelief in order for the plot to convincingly zigzag as it does. This technique can be cutesy and painful, as in, say, "Love, Actually". But when it works, as "Crash" does, you get a "Short Cuts", "Traffic" or "Magnolia". And like the latter opus from Paul Thomas Anderson, Mr. Haggis uses music and a meteorological event to good effect.
Where "Million Dollar Baby" was an intimate examination of three characters, "Crash" weaves the stories of many lives together to form a view of a society that can be at once crowded and isolating. The film takes place in Los Angeles, a sprawling suburb of a city with a very American mix of races.
The film opens with a car accident during which two women, one Asian, one Latina, almost immediately start hurling racial insults at each other. This sets the tone for most of the film, which steers not as much towards racism as racial profiling. Over the course of two days, we see how random lives touch and affect each other and how most of the time we don't actually see these extraneous people in our space. We take them at face value. We take them as the stereotypes they're supposed to be. The white cop, the black kid, the Mexican, the Arab, etc, etc.
The performances are strong across the board. Sandra Bullock, in an uncharacteristically ugly turn, creates a typical picture of privileged wealth. Don Cheadle and Matt Dillon are rock solid as two different kinds of LAPD cops. Terrance Howard has never been better as a TV director confronted with a fateful traffic stop one night. And Chris "Ludacris" Bridges - yes, that Ludacris - makes the most memorable rapper to actor transition in recent memory. What appears to be the role of a loudmouth carjacker becomes a very real performance.
It's a tribute to Mr. Haggis that the finest moment in the film may be a small scene between a father and his frightened daughter, during which the father invents a story to allay her fears. Played to perfection by Michael Pena, it's a quick moment which stands out as being quietly real.
As he did with "Million Dollar Baby", Mr. Haggis expertly walks the line between button pushing and manipulation. Are there plot contrivances in the film? Absolutely, but it's done for a greater purpose. And that purpose is not to point fingers or take some grand stance. There's no black and white in the film. Every character is painted in a shade of gray. Mr. Haggis offers no easy answers, just hard questions.