Some of my colleagues at Slant think it’s the worst movie of the year, if not of all time. NY Press’ Matt Zoller Seitz and LA Weekly’s Scott Foundas (among others) more or less agree. Meanwhile, Roger Ebert and Oprah – to name just two high-profile figures – think it’s phenomenal, brilliant, and the best film of 2005. To which polarizing piece of cinema am I referring? Why, that’d be Crash, Paul Haggis’ Los Angeles-set racism drama that’s garnered numerous Oscar nominations, tons of other (largely meaningless, in my opinion) accolades, and a swift, brutal backlash from those who are convinced that – should it upset Brokeback Mountain at this Sunday’s Academy Awards to nab the coveted Best Picture trophy – it’ll become the most undeserving gold statuette winner in a category historically rife with undeserving winners.
Back in May, I wrote a rather schizophrenic – but ultimately positive – review of the film for Slant, claiming that although the characters were unrealistically forthright in their vocalizations of racist attitudes, and that although its narrative had too many connect-the-myriad-storyline coincidences, Crash’s “head-on depiction of people’s mistrust and disgust for those not like themselves is uncompromising.” I praised the film’s “confrontational bluntness” while stating that its “point about the complexities (and contradictions) of racist generalizations remains bracing,” and even went so far as to call it a “blistering and incisive portrait of urban alienation and intolerance that's largely unsullied by…painful didacticism.” All pretty bold statements, especially considering my stated reservations about the film’s visual style, its aping of Magnolia and, in my drawn-out opening reference to an Upright Citizens Brigade episode (which I still think is a hilarious bit of cinephile-skewering), its dunderheaded dialogue-delivered explanation of its own title.
An okay film that both stimulated and aggravated me – nothing wonderful, nothing awful. Yet half a year later, with the praise and vitriol amplifying to equally ludicrous degrees, I felt compelled – despite my disinterest in doing so – to revisit the film. And what, pray tell, did I discover? Pretty much what I expected. Crash isn’t as good as my three-star review rating implies; two stars, maybe two-and-a-half on a really generous day, would more than suffice. It’s a heavy-handed slab of moralizing moviemaking cut from last year’s well-worn cinematic liberal guilt cloth, and its solid performances from Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton are largely overwhelmed by the film’s unrealistic, pretentious and often-patronizing preachiness about race-relations. The cinematographic slow-motion still drives me nuts, the coincidences are convenient to the point of unbearable, and for all the blunt talk about those-who-are-not-like-us – which I still think, despite the lack of a believable context, has a provocative power – it winds up merely confirming the not-very-shocking fact that everyone harbors some unseemly stereotypical opinions.
That said, I nonetheless don’t see what all the fuss is about. Crash’s detractors act as if the film is a malevolent force corrupting our national conscience with dangerously misleading ideas about race, rather than simply going overboard in earnestly attempting to tackle how various societal groups think about, and interact with, each other. Even stranger is the argument that the film is so clueless about how true racism really manifests itself – not a contention I completely disagree with, mind you – that it could only be believed by a sheltered boob who’d never actually experienced racism first-hand – a patently absurd claim that’s pretty funny when coming from light-skinned intellectuals. Unabashedly manipulative it may be (especially with the child-in-peril scene, which I admit gets to my still-blossoming protective-dad heartstrings), and graceless at regular intervals, the film nonetheless seems to be driven by decent intentions, something one could argue isn’t true of The Constant Gardener or Syriana, two other misguided attempts to address pertinent issues.
So to recap: Paul Haggis’ movie is neither the best or worst film of the year. It exists in the same place as most of last year’s new releases – somewhere in the boring, forgettable, mediocre middle. Although I have to admit that, having now written 700 more words about a film I don’t really care about, I’m slowly beginning to develop my own case of Crash-aphobia…