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Paul Haggis’ Crash and burn

What’s the worst film ever to take home a Best Picture Oscar?

Crash: Holy worst Best Picture, Batman!
Crash: Holy worst Best Picture, Batman!

This week sees the opening of David Cronenberg’s latest, so what better time is to put in a bad word about Crash? No, not Cronenberg’s ode to a desensitized societies dependence of sex in cars, but Paul Haggis’ indigestible plateful of celluloid sheep’s pluck.

Crash (2004)

What’s the worst film ever to take home a Best Picture Oscar? For years, the star-studded travelogue Around the World in 80 Days went unchallenged until the day Forrest Gump moved to town. (Hollywood’s depiction of the intellectually-challenged has never been a strong suit.) Then with a boom came Crash, Paul Haggis’ bulky, humorless, lesson-laden, multi-character conflict that’s about as subtle as a guy tickling your palm with his middle finger in mid-handshake. Great directors are like crooked croupiers, dealing from stacked shoes and with split-second timing. Haggis is a near perfect defense of film as a director’s medium. For an illustration, see Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Haggis’ Million Dollar Baby. Hitchcock had more to work with in Marnie. In less competent hands, the script, coupled with Hilary Swank’s limited range, never would have made it beyond the small screen. Eastwood’s masterful direction and dark, distant ’Scope frames further illuminate Haggis’ hackneyed saga of a female boxer. With superb performances by the director and Morgan Freeman to carry Swank, the film becomes a moving, transcendent experience. Eastwood found a through-line lurking within the C- script and in spite of Haggis’ faultily constructed sentimental soapbox, dealt a perfect hand. When left to his own devices, Haggis plays fifty-two pick up.

The action shakes out in flashback over the course of one day. In four brief scenes, Sandra Bullock’s Brentwood housewife comes to the realization that she’s angry. We learn of her husband Brendan Frasier’s position when he informs both the audience and his wife, “I’m the f--king district attorney of Los Angeles.” A racist, gun-toting Persian shop owner (Shaun Toub) hates being constantly mistaken for an Arab. Don Cheadle, who also acts as executive producer, and Jennifer Esposito are a pair of police detectives carrying on a torrid affair. Matt Dillon is the jaded Mark Fuhrmanesque racist with a badge, and Ryan Philippe, in the film’s most dumbfounding role, is his rookie partner. Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Larenz Tate play two of the most philosophical, albeit race-baiting, car-jackers ever to make it to the screen. Throw in a princely Mexican locksmith (Michael Pena) and a middle-aged Korean couple, and you have the makings of a multicultural made-for-TV movie of the week.

The impetus for the film came from a real life incident in which Haggis was the victim of an at-gunpoint carjacking. In the press notes, Haggis throws around such hot button topics as “urban isolation,” “race and class,” and “intolerance as a collective problem.” More concerned with issues than storytelling, the film converts into a giant Golden Book of moral turpitude. The director’s idea of narrative storytelling is the stuff film curriculums are made of. Match cut between one character opening a door and another entering a different location. Cross cut for no rhyme or reason between stories. Employ cheap sentiment whenever the plot mechanics slow you down, and when written into a corner, devise the simplest forms of coincidence to easily extricate yourself.

The only remotely satisfying thread concerns a black television producer (Terrence Howard) and his light-skinned wife (Thandie Newton). The couple is stopped by Dillon and Phillippe for committing an act of vehicular sodomy. She rightfully accuses the cops of pulling her over due to what they perceived as a white woman orally gratifying the big, black enemy. While frisking Newton, pent-up Dillon digitally penetrates the suspect. Howard, wanting only to avoid bad publicity and jail time, overlooks the violation in exchange for their freedom. But don’t think for one second that Haggis is going to miss an opportunity to throw logic to the wind by having both cops accidentally (and conveniently) meet up with the couple in subsequent reels. Happenstance litters the film’s second half. In less than 24 hours, Phillippe manages to absorb just enough of Dillon’s racist hate to go from saving Howard from an almost certain firing squad to killing a black hitchhiker, who conveniently turns out to be Cheadle’s gangbanging brother. Oh brother!

Even the nicest of characters can’t help but hate in the end. Loretta Devine is the hospital worker who gets an earful of Dillon’s racial angst. During a phone conversation, he learns that her name is Shaniqua. “That figures,” he snarls into the receiver, causing the offended black woman to slam the phone down. The last shot in the film finds Shaniqua, absent since reel two, involved in a fender-bender and hurling racial epithets at a Chinese driver.

As with Million Dollar Baby’s Mo Cuishle, Haggis delivers another, even more precious little angel. The noble locksmith’s daughter sleeps under the bed for fear of stray bullets like those in the old neighborhood. The Persian shopkeeper, inexplicably assigning blame for a break-in on Pena’s smithing skills, decides to test out his new gun. Daddy’s little girl pretends to be a Bible and blocks the bullet. Don’t worry folks! The reveal that the box the bullets came in was marked “blanks” was so quick, that if you looked at your watch, you’d miss the insert shot.

On my way out of the press screening, I recall holding back rage when a cheery publicist asked for a flash reaction. In a moment worthy of Criswell, I predicted that a worse film would not be released in 2004, and that future events such as this would reveal a Best Picture winner in the future. Do yourself a favor and download the Cronenberg.

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Crash: Holy worst Best Picture, Batman!
Crash: Holy worst Best Picture, Batman!

This week sees the opening of David Cronenberg’s latest, so what better time is to put in a bad word about Crash? No, not Cronenberg’s ode to a desensitized societies dependence of sex in cars, but Paul Haggis’ indigestible plateful of celluloid sheep’s pluck.

Crash (2004)

What’s the worst film ever to take home a Best Picture Oscar? For years, the star-studded travelogue Around the World in 80 Days went unchallenged until the day Forrest Gump moved to town. (Hollywood’s depiction of the intellectually-challenged has never been a strong suit.) Then with a boom came Crash, Paul Haggis’ bulky, humorless, lesson-laden, multi-character conflict that’s about as subtle as a guy tickling your palm with his middle finger in mid-handshake. Great directors are like crooked croupiers, dealing from stacked shoes and with split-second timing. Haggis is a near perfect defense of film as a director’s medium. For an illustration, see Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Haggis’ Million Dollar Baby. Hitchcock had more to work with in Marnie. In less competent hands, the script, coupled with Hilary Swank’s limited range, never would have made it beyond the small screen. Eastwood’s masterful direction and dark, distant ’Scope frames further illuminate Haggis’ hackneyed saga of a female boxer. With superb performances by the director and Morgan Freeman to carry Swank, the film becomes a moving, transcendent experience. Eastwood found a through-line lurking within the C- script and in spite of Haggis’ faultily constructed sentimental soapbox, dealt a perfect hand. When left to his own devices, Haggis plays fifty-two pick up.

The action shakes out in flashback over the course of one day. In four brief scenes, Sandra Bullock’s Brentwood housewife comes to the realization that she’s angry. We learn of her husband Brendan Frasier’s position when he informs both the audience and his wife, “I’m the f--king district attorney of Los Angeles.” A racist, gun-toting Persian shop owner (Shaun Toub) hates being constantly mistaken for an Arab. Don Cheadle, who also acts as executive producer, and Jennifer Esposito are a pair of police detectives carrying on a torrid affair. Matt Dillon is the jaded Mark Fuhrmanesque racist with a badge, and Ryan Philippe, in the film’s most dumbfounding role, is his rookie partner. Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Larenz Tate play two of the most philosophical, albeit race-baiting, car-jackers ever to make it to the screen. Throw in a princely Mexican locksmith (Michael Pena) and a middle-aged Korean couple, and you have the makings of a multicultural made-for-TV movie of the week.

The impetus for the film came from a real life incident in which Haggis was the victim of an at-gunpoint carjacking. In the press notes, Haggis throws around such hot button topics as “urban isolation,” “race and class,” and “intolerance as a collective problem.” More concerned with issues than storytelling, the film converts into a giant Golden Book of moral turpitude. The director’s idea of narrative storytelling is the stuff film curriculums are made of. Match cut between one character opening a door and another entering a different location. Cross cut for no rhyme or reason between stories. Employ cheap sentiment whenever the plot mechanics slow you down, and when written into a corner, devise the simplest forms of coincidence to easily extricate yourself.

The only remotely satisfying thread concerns a black television producer (Terrence Howard) and his light-skinned wife (Thandie Newton). The couple is stopped by Dillon and Phillippe for committing an act of vehicular sodomy. She rightfully accuses the cops of pulling her over due to what they perceived as a white woman orally gratifying the big, black enemy. While frisking Newton, pent-up Dillon digitally penetrates the suspect. Howard, wanting only to avoid bad publicity and jail time, overlooks the violation in exchange for their freedom. But don’t think for one second that Haggis is going to miss an opportunity to throw logic to the wind by having both cops accidentally (and conveniently) meet up with the couple in subsequent reels. Happenstance litters the film’s second half. In less than 24 hours, Phillippe manages to absorb just enough of Dillon’s racist hate to go from saving Howard from an almost certain firing squad to killing a black hitchhiker, who conveniently turns out to be Cheadle’s gangbanging brother. Oh brother!

Even the nicest of characters can’t help but hate in the end. Loretta Devine is the hospital worker who gets an earful of Dillon’s racial angst. During a phone conversation, he learns that her name is Shaniqua. “That figures,” he snarls into the receiver, causing the offended black woman to slam the phone down. The last shot in the film finds Shaniqua, absent since reel two, involved in a fender-bender and hurling racial epithets at a Chinese driver.

As with Million Dollar Baby’s Mo Cuishle, Haggis delivers another, even more precious little angel. The noble locksmith’s daughter sleeps under the bed for fear of stray bullets like those in the old neighborhood. The Persian shopkeeper, inexplicably assigning blame for a break-in on Pena’s smithing skills, decides to test out his new gun. Daddy’s little girl pretends to be a Bible and blocks the bullet. Don’t worry folks! The reveal that the box the bullets came in was marked “blanks” was so quick, that if you looked at your watch, you’d miss the insert shot.

On my way out of the press screening, I recall holding back rage when a cheery publicist asked for a flash reaction. In a moment worthy of Criswell, I predicted that a worse film would not be released in 2004, and that future events such as this would reveal a Best Picture winner in the future. Do yourself a favor and download the Cronenberg.

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