PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 June, 2006, 12:00am

Starring: Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle, Thandie Newton, Brendan Fraser

Director: Paul Haggis

Category: IIB

More than a decade after the Rodney King riots, people in America still just can't get along. That includes film critics. A war of words broke out between Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times and the LA Weekly's Scott Foundas over Paul Haggis' surprise Oscar best picture. Ebert agrees it is the movie of the year, Foundas thinks it's 2005's worst film - and the two have traded not-so-friendly rebuttals in print.

Crash certainly pushes sensitive buttons and it has divided audiences, but is it a better movie than Brokeback Mountain? Not by a long shot. It may be an effective ensemble piece dealing with the racially incendiary city of Los Angeles, but it's also disingenuous, cliched and as emotionally simplistic as a McDonald's commercial.

The film begins with a minor fender bender between an Asian woman and a Latino female who end up screaming at each other after the accident. Then, a white couple is car-jacked by two black kids, an Iranian shopkeeper receives racial slurs from a redneck, and a black yuppie TV executive and his wife are harangued by white cops who've had a bad day. Each incident triggers further anger and resentment, with victims then perpetrating their own ignorance and stereotype on the next person of a different race.

The film lays out its intriguing theory early as a black detective (Don Cheadle) suggests people today are so disconnected, the only way they can engage is to literally and figuratively 'crash' into each other.

The film may be a heartfelt plea for tolerance and civil kindness, but it's also a middle-class conscience exercise in multicultural promotion. Dramatically, the characters are too neatly slotted into predictable social types. When they're not hurling insults, they're walking morality lessons. While you can't argue with the earnest themes of collective redemption and forgiveness, it's also not a new message. Crash often feels like an old episode of LA Law and ER, with its rushed sense of dramatic payoff. Matt Dillon is a racist cop in scene one, in scene two you see he's stressed because of a sick dad, and the denouement redeems him as a flawed but heroic human being. It's too easy to be considered realistic or believable.

Still, the cast - from Cheadle, Thandie Newton, Sandra Bullock, Terrence Howard to Ryan Phillippe - deliver nice work. If only the movie came out 10 years ago, then it might be called original and brave. Now, it's just white, liberal schmaltz.

Crash opens today