(director/writer: Paul Haggis; screenwriter: story by Paul Haggis/Bobby Moresco; cinematographer: J. Michael Muro; editor: Hughes Winborne; music: Mark Isham; cast: Sandra Bullock (Jean Cabot), Don Cheadle (Graham), Matt Dillon (Officer Ryan), Jennifer Esposito (Ria), Brendan Fraser (Rick Cabot), Terrence Howard (Cameron), Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges (Anthony), Larenz Tate (Peter), Thandie Newton (Christine), Michael Pena (Daniel), William Fichtner (Flanagan), Ryan Phillippe (Officer Hanson), Keith David (Lt. Dixon), Loretta Devine (Shaniqua), Shaun Toub (Farhad); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Cathy Schulman/Don Cheadle/Bob Yari/Mark R. Harris/Mr. Moresco/Paul Haggis; Lions Gate Films; 2004)

“A preposterous view of American life that bleakly covers the surface of the social problems it tried to paint with such broad brush strokes.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Paul Haggis, a native Londoner who has lived for the past 25 years in LA, was the writer for Million Dollar Baby. Here he co-authors with Bobby Moresco, as he makes his debut as film director with this ambitious ensemble piece about urban racism, crime, stress and lack of communication. A joyless film that steps over itself to make its big points over and over again in a dramatic style that follows the way Magnolia was shot. The filmmaker uses a vignette structured setup to follow a disparate group of characters (too many to adequately keep track of!) over a thirty-six-hour period in a highly charged Los Angeles that begins and ends with a minor car crash–the film’s not too subtle metaphor about how intolerance is a collective problem that will lead to a collision (among Asians, Hispanics, blacks, whites, and Persians) that can bring down a city if it’s not checked. To accomplish Haggis’s aim of showing the critical need to improve relationships among the city’s citizens, the filmmaker relies on a number of contrived set pieces, coincidences, exaggerations, sermons, stereotypical surprises and the observation of the tense LA lifestyle that seems too insane to comprehend.

The interlocking story between crashes includes the following characters: Smarmy Waspish district attorney Rick Cabot (Brendan Fraser) and his always angry wife Jean (Sandra Bullock) are carjacked at gunpoint in a high-scale white neighborhood by two black men named Anthony and Peter (the rapper Ludacris and Larenz Tate). The politico wants to use the incident to advance his career, while wifey goes racist. Ludacris goes off on a long absurd rap about nonsensical observations of whites and blacks that he rationalizes as the absolute truth. Peter turns out to be the wayward car thief younger brother of successful homicide detective Graham (Don Cheadle), who is having an affair with his Hispanic partner Ria (Jennifer Esposito) and is too busy with his career to track down his missing brother to keep him out of trouble. Daniel (Michael Pena) is a gentle, hardworking, honest Mexican locksmith experiencing prejudice on a daily basis and who has a gun pulled on him by an angry Persian man (Shaun Toub), who irrationally blames him for losing everything in a store robbery Daniel tried to prevent by giving him good advice that was not followed. Successful black TV director Cameron (Terrence Howard) is first seen in his SUV getting a blow job from his tipsy actress wife Christine (Thandie Newton). They are stopped by two white cops, and the racist cop, Sgt. Ryan (Matt Dillon), gropes the wife while the shamed husband feels powerless and the rookie officer, Hanson (Ryan Phillippe), feels bad about the abuse witnessed but can’t stop it (his turn to face a racist situation will come later). Ryan turns out to be a brave officer who has a caring attitude about his ill father and is to be pitied when he faces prejudice while trying to change doctors for his dad from an angry unforgiving social case worker (Loretta Devine), who was insulted over the phone by Ryan. She hides her own bigotry until it surfaces in a road rage car accident.

The city was depicted as an ugly place to live, where its citizens normally spew hatred at every street provocation and every plot point has been made a moral civic lesson in over-the-top racism. The film is top-heavy with pretensions that take away from any of the shock effects of the constant bigotry. There are too many unbelievable scenes, such as the racist cop rescuing from a car accident the same woman he previously sexually harassed and the bigoted Ludacris character suddenly doing a good turn for Asian refugees smuggled into the country.

Instead of leaving us with a realistic message, we feel snowed under by its unreal assault on our senses and are left with a preposterous view of American life that bleakly covers the surface of the social problems it tried to paint with such broad brush strokes. Only the Pena character inspired me with any sense of hope. He is the only innocent in the mix and the only one worth caring about, communicating in a wholesome way with his engaging young daughter about the move to a safer neighborhood–which was the best lyrical moment in the film and one that made its point about tolerance better than all the racial slurs blurted out, guns pulled and snow falling over the Hollywood Hills.