Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is a classic children's story about a day in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong for a young disgruntled kid. Paul Haggis's first film Crash is similar, only it's about the whole city of Los Angeles having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Alexander's mishaps came in all shapes and sizes, but the stressed-out L.A.-dwellers of Crash are suffering various manifestations of the same disease—racial prejudice. Discrimination seems to have conquered the city in an epidemic, the way the "Rage" virus turned Londoners into zombies in 28 Days Later. And unlike Alexander's story, Crash doesn't wrap things up in a tidy, happy ending. While each of the characters' hate-filled confrontations is plausible, a two-hour barrage of them leaves us weary and groping for something more meaningful and hopeful than this film has to offer.
Haggis, who adapted the similarly bleak Million Dollar Baby from the stories of F.X. Toole, has a flair for dark tales of human weakness. The screenplay he wrote for Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winner was powerful because it focused on three characters intently, drawing us deeply into their relationships. Crash, by contrast, has enough characters to fill a phone book. As in Grand Canyon, Short Cuts, Magnolia, and Thirteen Stories About One Thing, myriad wheels of narrative are turning all at once, interlocking in surprising ways. We're as dazzled by Haggis's plot-juggling act as we are by the intensity of his lament for a world that seems broken beyond fixing.
Perhaps the most effective quality of Crash is its scope. We all recognize certain familiar varieties of discrimination—government oppression, hate crimes, unflattering cultural caricatures. But under Haggis's microscope, the tumors of this cancer show up in people of all races, economic strata, and occupations, even in everyday business transactions. Many viewers will come away with a greater awareness of racism's complexity and the folly of believing that the government or the cops can fix the problem. They may even come to recognize the influence of racist ideas in their own behavior.
It's also impressive that Haggis's actors—well, most of them—are able to make scenes of clash and confrontation work without overreaching.
As Graham, a black, brooding, ambitious police detective, Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) delivers another strong, slow-burn performance. Graham's the kind of cop who waxes philosophical as he watches a fender-bender turn into road rage. He's trying to be a man of integrity in a world that's unfair, but he's not above exploiting race in heated exchanges. When his coked-out mother stings him over the phone, he slaps her by revealing he's "having sex with a white woman."
That white woman, Ria (Jennifer Esposito of Taxi, Summer of Sam), who happens to be his partner on the force, has issues of her own. When she's rear-ended by a Chinese woman who speaks English poorly, she sneers, "What? Oh, I blake too fast?"