Crash
dir. Paul Haggis
Opens Fri May 5.

The cinema of sprawling coincidences and chance encounters (in which A bumps into B, who just happens to know C, who is secretly having an affair with F, who works for D, who shares a dark secret with A, and so on) must surely be a catnip pull for filmmakers, as the framework allows a director an opportunity to indulge their God complex to an even larger degree than usual. For such a large-scale canvas to work, however, the storyteller either has to have an exquisite feel for the small ironies (Altman's Short Cuts) or pump up the energy to such a degree that the too-pat coincidences don't stick (P. T. Anderson's Magnolia, which, whatever its faults, jacked up the escalating conflicts between its disparate characters to a point where the climactic miraculous disaster felt not only plausible but needed). Either way, if you ever pause too long to linger on the connecting details, you're dead in the water.

Crash, the directing debut of Million Dollar Baby screenwriter Paul Haggis, certainly doesn't want for hubris, but ultimately stands as a case of laudable ambition overwhelming still-developing narrative abilities. Although his would-be epic of race relations in Los Angeles (triggered via an escalating domino series of automobile mishaps) sports a handful of genuinely searing moments, it's hard to shake the sense of someone constantly rearranging three-by-five cards behind the scenes for maximum impact. (A late-blooming development involving a threatened child, in particular, stands as an enraging example of Haggis cynically attempting to have it both ways.)

The cast, led by co-producer Don Cheadle's tragically clear-eyed central homicide cop, almost makes it fly, though, with special mention going to Ludacris (as a carjacker hilariously obsessed with the Man), and, especially, Sandra Bullock's admirably against-type portrayal of an upper-class housewife with a major chip on her shoulder. (Hearing her spew forth a torrent of blistering racist invective carries the nasty jolting buzz of hearing a dirty joke in church). Together, they can't quite make Haggis' preachy puppet show feel entirely organic, but they certainly take some of the glare off of the strings.

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