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Crash

In honor of this Oscars Eve, I thought I’d take a look back at one of the stranger entries in the history of the Academy Awards. Crash has been considered one of the all-time classic examples of Oscar Fool’s Gold ever since it won Best Picture of 2005. But let’s be honest, 2005 turned out to be a pretty awful year for movies. Though it was the year of Batman Begins and Serenity, it was also the year of ElektraFantastic FourHerbie: Fully LoadedSon of the MaskAlone in the Dark, Stealth, the list goes on and on.

Seriously, when was the last time you heard anyone talk about Memoirs of a Geisha or The New World? Who still cares about The Chronicles of NarniaConstantine, or Aeon Flux? Does anyone out there prefer the remakes of King Kong or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory over their original films? Who would list Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith in the top ten percent of either franchise?

Yet even in this crappy year, the Academy still scraped together a Best Picture list out of Brokeback Mountain, Good Night and Good LuckCapote, and Munich, all (from what I’ve heard) worthy films. By all appearances, Crash was only in there to pad out the list, and it was somehow the film that won. The film even spawned a Starz TV series in 2008, though it only lasted for 13 episodes.

So when all is said and done, with nearly a decade of hindsight, is this film really worthy of being a Best Picture? No, no, no. No. HELL no.

Right out of the gate, we hear Don Cheadle talking for no discernible reason about how we’re surrounded by so much metal and glass that we need to crash into each other just to connect. Jennifer Esposito then lampshades this by asking if Cheadle lost his marbles in the car crash they just got into. What follows is a flurry of racial insults. A Latino woman and an Asian woman hurl racial stereotypes at each other, a white man calls a Middle Eastern man a terrorist, and Ludacris comes out of a restaurant complaining about racial profiling. What makes it even worse is that Ludacris protests against unfair black stereotypes just before proving that yes, he is a black man who doesn’t tip, and yes, he is also a black man who has a gun so that he can carjack some rich white folk. So at least the movie is upfront about how unpleasant it’s going to be.

I’m not even going to attempt a plot recap of this movie. This is partly because it’s one of those labyrinthine plots comprised of several interconnecting storylines. It’s also because the film stars a laundry list of above-the-title actors, and barely any of them play characters who are remotely likeable. From start to finish, every single character is either somehow acting out racial stereotypes, accusing other characters of being racial stereotypes, or both at the same time.

Sure, the film has some flimsy attempts at character depth. Matt Dillon plays a corrupt police officer with an ailing father, Ryan Phillippe plays his rookie partner who watches the corruption and does nothing, Michael Pena plays a family man who’s persecuted because he looks like a gang member, you get the idea. Though we get a nice scene out of it every once in a while, these shallow attempts at character development don’t redeem all the putrid, transparent bullshit seen throughout most of the running time. Plus, because the film’s structure is comprised of so many interlocking storylines, the characters’ more sympathetic moments are drowned out that much more easily.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that pretty much every line of dialogue in this movie has something to do with race. It’s preachy, it’s overly simplistic, and it’s pretentious. These are genuinely talented actors trying to deliver Oscar-worthy performances with paper-thin characters and hollow bullshit dialogue. It’s embarrassing to watch. For God’s sake, they brought in Tony Danza — Tony fucking Danza! — to cameo as a sitcom writer who complains about how a black cast member isn’t talking black enough. I wish I knew how many brain cells I lost when I facepalmed after that one.

The film’s Wikipedia page would have you believe that “racist remarks and actions [in this movie] are often shown to stem from ignorance and misconception rather than a malicious personality.” First of all, that doesn’t make it any less sickening to watch ignorant characters verbally and physically assault each other with extreme prejudice for two straight hours. Secondly, there are some very prominent exceptions to the rule. A big one is Matt Dillon, here playing a corrupt cop who abuses his power to harass a black man and sexually abuse his wife, just after giving some black woman crap for being named “Shaniqua.” You want to tell me his racism doesn’t stem from a “malicious personality?” Yeah fucking right.

What makes it even more saddening is that this is Paul Haggis. The same guy who wrote Flags of our FathersLetters from Iwo Jima, and Casino Royale. It baffles me how such a talented and in-demand screenwriter could craft such wretched characters and horrible dialogue. Moreover, Haggis also directed and produced this picture. He described it himself as a passion project. And this is the best he could do? He wanted to talk about racism so badly, yet he didn’t have anything new or interesting or intelligent to say on the topic?

At the very least, Haggis might have come up with a way to make this film some degree of entertaining. As it is, I felt terribly unclean watching the whole thing. This isn’t like 12 Years a Slave, which presented white guilt in an honest and historically enlightening way. This isn’t even like Fruitvale Station, which presented racial issues against the greater theme of making every moment in life count. When I saw Michael B. Jordan accosted by cops in that movie, there was a palpable energy and a tragic sense of impending doom. When I see Terrence Howard getting accosted by a cop in this movie, it feels like meaningless and unnecessary bullshit. Especially since the film has presented umpteen other examples of racial profiling before we’ve even reached the 20-minute mark.

Hell, The Guard (another Don Cheadle-produced film) offered up a healthy dose of dark humor to go with its racial commentary, and this film sure as hell isn’t that clever. No, heaven forbid there should be any kind of comic relief in this dreary, “edgy,” deathly serious picture. The closest we get is the comedy stylings of Ludacris, and that’s assuming your funny bone is tickled by ignorant “fuck the white man” diatribes about how buses are designed with windows to disgrace the minorities riding inside. Yes, that’s pulled directly from the movie.

I get that the filmmakers are trying to present racism in an honest and blunt way, void of political correctness. But that in itself doesn’t make for very good art. So racism exists and it’s bad. Well, fire exists and it’s hot. Either offer something else to work with or don’t waste our time. Additionally, I understand that the film was trying to present us with realistic characters to sympathize with, so that none of the characters come off as straight villains or straight heroes. But the film fails by taking the middle road, presenting its characters so terribly in one moment that it’s impossible to sympathize with them when it counts. It also doesn’t help that the characters are all poorly written and the actors are all visibly grasping at straws for anything of substance to work with.

I will admit that the plot features some very impressive twists, especially in the second half. When something unexpected happens, the actors and the filmmakers all do a fine job of selling the heightened tension. The problem, however, is that the film isn’t structured in a way that allows for some of these twists to be properly set up. A prime example happens when Pena’s character fixes someone’s lock, but the door needs to be replaced. Because the door isn’t replaced, someone breaks in. That very same night. Immediately after the lock is fixed. Quite a coincidence, don’t you think?

Crash sucks. It has some good moments, but they’re so contrived and surrounded by so many mountains of bullshit that it’s just not worth it. I’ve no doubt that it was made with the best of intentions, but the film approaches its subject in such a preachy, ham-fisted manner that any good will it might have had is immediately squandered. The various storylines might potentially have served as a commentary on humanity’s interconnected nature, but the structure spreads the running time so thin that there’s no time to properly set up the storyline crossovers, with results that pretty much always feel unearned. Last but not least, I don’t care how good that last hour might be, it’s not enough to redeem an hour of sitting through such unpleasant racial vitriol going nonstop.

Basically put, this is exactly the kind of pretentious and “edgy” movie that the Academy loves to eat up. It’s not really surprising that this won Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain in retrospect: Academy voters in 2005 weren’t really sure what to do with a movie about homosexuality, but they knew what to do with a movie about race. Makes sense. Just look at 12 Years a Slave, the edgy white guilt movie that’s the odds-on favorite to win the top prize tomorrow.

The point being that Crash merely had the good fortune of being released in a weak year. If 2005 was any kind of halfway-decent year in films, this one never would’ve stood a chance at getting so many nominations, much less so many awards.

2 Comments

  1. Comment by Joshua:

    I understand that many of these criticisms were already spouted out for many years since Crash won Best Picture, but good job summarizing a majority of the most common and massive problems that this film has.

    Poor Paul Haggis though, he never got a break ever since Crash with his unfortunate follow-up directorial efforts. I believe he just got lucky at the Oscars since 2005 was indeed a sucky year for film in general.

  2. Comment by Curiosity Inc.:

    This is one of the reasons why I don’t do DVD reviews very often. It’s hard finding new things to say. Anyway, thanks for reading.

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