I’ve been thinking a lot about “Crash” lately — partly because I’d been avoiding it for months and finally saw it, and partly because it happens to be the most successful indie film of the year so far. Of course, it’s not really “indie,” because Lions Gate opened the film on over 1,800 screens. But when a relatively small movie out-grosses everything from “Cinderella Man” to “Fever Pitch” to “Kingdom of Heaven,” people take notice and the powers shift. In this case, they will tilt, regretfully, in the direction of Paul Haggis, the TV hack turned screenwriter, who has managed to bamboozle millions of Americans and even the smartest of critics with his simplistic, sentimental dreck. (The LA Weekly’s Ella Taylor: “one of the best Hollywood movies about race” — oh Ella, why? why?)
Fiercely committed acting aside, “Crash” is an atrocity committed against the craft of drama, filled with forced, shorthand trickery to create hollow statements about race without a shred of humanity at its core. Resolutions come fast and furious — sprain your ankle, heal your prejudices and hug your Hispanic maid — letting audiences indulge and feel better about their own easily redeemable racist beliefs.
Like “Million Dollar Baby,” which I cared for slightly more, Haggis’ worldview comes in the type of stark black-or-white terms that the Bushies would enjoy. Think he’s a horribly racist cop? No, he’s caring for his ailing dad and deserves your sympathy. But this one’s a good cop? Oh no, he’s a bigoted murderer. One day, you’re an underdog hero; the next, you’re a quadriplegic who bites off her own tongue. From uncaring, tough-talking coach to conflicted, anguished mercykiller — all in about 2 hours. It’s just so easy! Haggis enjoys flipping his characters a full 180 degrees, less complicating stereotypes as reinforcing the poles. He doesn’t really write characters, so much as use a cookie-cutter. Please Hollywood, don’t give this guy free reign to make more movies.
As Haggis himself admited to the Los Angeles Times, “I was a really bad writer for a long time.” And what exactly has changed?