Connect and collide in the city of angels

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Connect and collide in the city of angels


What is it about Los Angeles that all its most iconic stories drip with despair? Phillip Marlowe got lost in its “drab anonymity,” Joe Friday shook his head at its deviants, Jack Gittes lost everything in its Chinatown. The songwriter Eddie Maxwell called one of its downtown intersections the place “where nobody’s dreams come true.”
L.A. is a compartmentalized city, whose geography rejects a greater human community. The first line in “Crash” is a lament for Los Angeles: “In any real city, you walk... you brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you.” So its deteriorating streets are the perfect place for a noir-style musing on race relations (or collisions).
“Crash” declares its intentions in the first scene. Ria (Jennifer Esposito) and Graham (Don Cheadle), two homicide detectives, get rear-ended by Kim Lee (Alexis Rhee), and before you know it they’re tossing racial insults. In just a few lines of dialogue, Ria and Kim Lee hit all the bases: Asians are short, mispronounce the letter R and can’t drive, while “Mexicans” are illegal immigrants ― and can’t drive. This is the film’s gimmick and biggest flaw: its characters have no restraint whatsoever. Where most real-world people, even Angelenos, usually at least try to conceal their racial prejudices, those in “Crash” are on a hair trigger, ready to toss out all kinds of garbage at the slightest irritation. But “Crash” manages to overcome this limitation thanks to remarkable characterizations and a complicated plot full of twists and turns.
Along with “Traffic” and “Syriana,” “Crash” is an example of what Roger Ebert has called “hyperlink filmmaking,” in which the stories of many different characters interlock to form a narrative web. Any plot summary of such a movie has to end up sounding like an episode of “Connections.” Ria and Graham are investigating a possibly racially motivated shooting of a cop by another cop. Rick (Brendan Fraser) is the district attorney, who’s married to Jean (Sandra Bullock). After her car is stolen by two young black men, Anthony (Ludacris) and Peter (Larenz Tate), Jean has her locks changed by Daniel (Michael Pena), who also changes the locks of a Persian family’s convenience store. Meanwhile, a newly minted police patrolman (Ryan Phillippe) deals with his partner’s molestation of a rich black woman (Thandie Newton) and runs up against institutional prejudice and eventually his own.
Behind all these characters are superb actors, and there isn’t a single bad performance. Particularly standout are Bullock for her rough but sympathetic transformation and Terrence Howard and Newton for one of the most convincing depictions ever put on film of a middle-class black couple coming to terms with racism. Even Chris Bridges, better known as Ludacris, manages to inject some sharp-tipped humor into the film, though he trips over himself when the films calls for him to project fuzzy and altruistic.
“Crash” is a fusion of classic noir (it even ends in Chinatown) and hour-long TV drama. Sometimes it tries too hard to be important, but in its less heavy-handed moments great performances, honest drama and thick atmosphere make a film that’s moving, if not cheery. Welcome to the city of angels.

Drama / English
109 min.
Opens Thursday

by Ben Applegate
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