The directorial debut of "Million Dollar Baby" writer Paul Haggis is one of those slice of life dramas along "Magnolia" and "Short Cuts" style lines but done with a grittier and more streamlined tone. The result is something that's faster, more topical and lacks some of the quieter and/or slower subplots of your average Robert Altman movie. Rather than ordinary people, the focus is on a variety of people's attitudes towards racism in the empty wasteland that is post-modern Los Angeles. Its a great setting as Cheadle says in the beginning, one of the few megacities on Earth where you really are isolated from others in a way that's not like anywhere else.
That said there's something to be said for the longer versions of these types of films which give characters time to breath and makes the assorted plot line interconnections flow more smoothly. "Crash" may never get slow or boring, but to do so involves some rather unbelievable coincidences that start to pile-up faster and faster as the end draws near. Indeed many of the subplots not only crossover in awkward ways, practically all are forced to come to a moral resolution that tries to rise above the rest of the film's bleakness. The result is something that feels contrived at times, heavy-handed and unrealistic.
It may seem a nag to go on about the script problems, but a lot of that is because everything else about the film is just so good. All the cast are uniformly excellent ranging from the marquee names to the rappers to the unknowns. Even those many wouldn't expect much from like Bullock, Phillippe and Newton all deliver superb work in their respective parts which only add up to a few minutes of screen time each. Special citations should be given to Dillon, Howard and Cheadle for taking roles that could easily have been stereotypes and fleshing them out nicely.
The film's theme is of course racism and racial tension, but unlike a Spike Lee movie, there is a welcome desire and introspection here that tries to make us as an audience think about the various causes and reasons for racism aside from the easily fall back positions of intolerance and bigotry. From the double-edged sword of political correctness to the assorted hatred of minorities within and of other minorities, it covers a lot of bases in a short amount of time even if it never truly answers many of the murky questions it brings up. Part of that is also the timing, the outright bigotry on display feels forced - it seems to be the central daily concern of almost every single character who voices it out loud, and yet racism is most dangerous and more prevalent these days in quiet and subversive ways.
That doesn't take away from its great moments of revelation. The almost operatic sequence involving the Dillon/Newton plot thread making a surprising U-Turn, the shocking moment involving a shooting, a great scene where Phillippe tries to calm a frustrated beyond breaking point Howard, Bullock's screaming at Fraser in the kitchen, etc. The list goes on and on of great moments and scenes in this that will stick in your head long after you've left the cinema.
The soundtrack is a nice modern downbeat mix, albeit somewhat generic, and there's one too many montages full of long looks and forced self-consideration. As much as it is pretentious, it is smart adult cinema that for the most part works in spite of its many contrivances and brow-beating heavy morality. The whole may not be greater than the sum of its parts but in this case, many of those parts are nearly great.