Paul Haggis has gotten a bit big for his britches. The veteran TV writer broke into screenwriting respectability in a big way with Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby last year. Haggis' directorial debut, Crash, is, in many ways, a typical first feature: It's sweeping, self-important and sloppy, taking on far more than it can handle and convinced it's far more profound than it really is. But it's also packed with Hollywood stars and that, combined with Haggis' newfound acclaim, has given it an inflated air of gravity it doesn't deserve.
Like Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia or Robert Altman's Short Cuts, Crash is a series of vignettes featuring a sprawling cast of characters, all of whom are connected in various ways. Unlike those other films though, Crash has only a single theme, one which it hammers away at from its first moment until its last: racism. Haggis follows a cross-section of Los Angeles residents of various ages, classes and ethnicities over the course of two days, as they cross paths in various ways. The characters include a dedicated detective (Don Cheadle), a racist but kind-hearted beat cop (Matt Dillon), a pair of overly articulate thugs (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and Larenz Tate) and a whole swath of others.
Haggis' plotting is over-reliant on coincidences, and several encounters will have you groaning at their unlikelihood. But if he had offered something in the way of characterization, the structure wouldn't have been much of a problem. As it is, Haggis reduces every single human interaction to race: there is not a single action nor statement in the entire film not motivated by racism or a response to it. By attempting to say everything about race, Haggis ultimately says nothing, losing the shock value of his language after the first 20 minutes and numbing the audience into indifference.
The characters never feel real beyond the racial stereotypes they either embody or rail against, and the leaden dialogue is so heavy with meaning that it rarely sounds like actual speech. Many of the actors try too hard, especially Sandra Bullock in a role far too similar to Téa Leoni's in the equally misguided Spanglish, although overall the performances are solid. But Haggis is more concerned with showing off his imagined insight than in crafting believable drama. By the time he bathes LA in redemptive snowfall at the end, you'll either be ready to cry or puke. You can guess which side I fell on.