A multi-character film supposedly examining racial relations and tension in modern day L.A. In characters perhaps superficially inspired by Gavin Newsom and current Fox News hottie Kimberly Guilfoyle, Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock are an LA District Attorney and his wife, whose car is stolen by gangbangers Ludacris and Warp...er...Larenz Tate. Terrence Howard is an African-American TV director who earns his wife Thandie Newton’s scorn when he doesn’t do enough to stand up to the clearly racist cop (Matt Dillon) who pretty much molests her in an unnecessary shakedown. Ryan Phillippe is Dillon’s shocked partner, whilst Keith David is the cautious police captain. Don Cheadle plays a cop who is sleeping with his Hispanic partner, played by Jennifer Esposito. Shaun Toub plays an increasingly frustrated Persian immigrant who blames a well-intentioned Mexican locksmith (Michael Pena) for his store being robbed. Pena, a loving and hard-working father, also gets the evil eye from Bullock when changing the locks at their place, because he apparently looks like he’s in a ‘gang’. William Fichtner has one scene as a slick IA guy with an interesting take on race. Loretta Devine plays a social worker whom Dillon verbally and racially abuses out of frustration over his ill father whom he is caring for (SPOILER: She’s racist too!).
I’ve already reviewed this 2005 Paul Haggis (“The Next Three Days”, writer of the much more sensitive and measured “Million Dollar Baby”) multi-character racial drama at Epinions.com, but I caught it again fairly recently, and I think there was enough material in my notes for another, and hopefully even better review. It’s always interesting to re-evaluate a film years later (in this case less than 10 years later), though I must say that my overall impression of the film is much the same, if perhaps even less favourable. It’s the worst Best Picture Oscar winner of all-time, and one of the most overrated films of all-time. Co-scripted by Robert Moresco, the film is appallingly heavy-handed and stereotyped, which makes it counterproductive in the extreme.
It starts off badly, with Jennifer Esposito berating an Asian motorist by mocking their accent. It’s embarrassingly bad and unrealistically stereotyped (The entire scene, and the ending which helps bookend the film, is just so stupid and corny). It doesn’t get any better when Shaun Toub’s character gets called ‘Osama’ in a stupid rant by an admittedly well-cast Jack McGee. But perhaps the film’s lowest moment is yet to come, as rapper Ludacris and perennial screen gangbanger Larenz Tate complain about negative racial stereotypes...and then carjack Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock. That’s not clever or ironic, it’s reinforcing stupid stereotypes. Tate gets a scene later that was probably meant to earn him sympathy, but this early fake-out made it absolutely impossible for me to have any sympathy whatsoever for his character. He’s a bad guy, simple as that. How did this film even get made, let alone win so many awards?
I also think the film is frankly a bit misogynistic, because whilst Thandie Newton, Jennifer Esposito, and Sandra Bullock all play raging harpy bitches, the guys at least have Don Cheadle, Ryan Phillippe, and hell, even Matt Dillon’s character has some humanity in there, or at least some real complexity. In a terribly overcooked film, poor Thandie Newton probably fares worst of all. A terribly unconvincing drunk, her character is just appallingly written, almost as bad as Halle Berry’s character in “Monster’s Ball” to be honest (And at least Halle walked off with the Oscar as a retort to critics like me who think her role and performance were kinda demeaning). The character basically berates her husband for no good reason. Terrence Howard does the smart thing by not acting out. Anyone who says otherwise isn’t being realistic about the situation they were in. She’s just a mean, horrible person, and the terrible, forced dialogue (not just restricted to this character) doesn’t help. None of these are real people, they are writers’ constructs, and poor ones at that. Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe are well-cast and probably come off best here (along with the always likeable Michael Pena). Dillon earned an Oscar nomination for essentially being the only one here to break out of his initial stereotype, with a sympathetic back-story. However, the film just gets ridiculous when a ginormous plot contrivance allows him to atone for an earlier sin involving Newton. It plays out in horribly unconvincing fashion, but reaches its zenith when Newton tells Dillon to get away from her. Um...
OK, good luck with that then, sweetheart.
Phillippe’s best scene is with Howard and it almost approaches being more than 2D. Howard also gets one moving scene where he deals with Ludacris, in what is otherwise an extremely unpersuasive film (Not to mention that Ludacris really IS embarrassing). Keith David also has a genuinely interesting role as the African-American police captain who doesn’t wanna do anything about Dillon because he’ll look bad, as he has worked hard to get where he is as a black man in a white man’s world. William Fichtner doesn’t get much screen time, but playing one of the more complex roles, he plays things as well as he always does. Underrated actor. Don Cheadle is a good actor, but the film wants us to get hysterical over the fact that OH MY GOD, DON CHEADLE IS HAVING SEX WITH AN HISPANIC WOMAN! OH MY GOD! THE WORLD IS GOING TOPSY TURVY! Even Spike Lee is telling you to shut the fuck up, Mr. Haggis (whose directorial debut this was, by the way). There’s nothing remotely shocking, insightful, or interesting about that, and it’s a complete waste of Mr. Cheadle’s fine talent and effort. He’s a producer here, though, so he’s partly responsible I guess. Poor Shaun Toub, after earlier showing some subtlety and shading (basically showing that even otherwise ‘good’ people can have prejudices), eventually becomes a gun-waving Middle Eastern stereotype, albeit an ineffectual one that nonetheless ruins the subtlety and truth initially set up. He at least gets one more dimension that Sandra Bullock’s raging, upper-class bitchface, though. ***** SPOILER ALERT ***** Aw, look Sandra’s not a raging, racist snob anymore because her Hispanic maid saved her life when she threw her back out! ***** END SPOILER ***** Let’s all hold hands across America!
Screw this movie. It’s an embarrassment to the very thing it is attempting to preach. One of the most overrated, overcooked, heavy-handed films of its decade. I don’t get this histrionic film’s appeal in the slightest. Solid performances by Michael Pena, Matt Dillon, Ryan Phillippe, Brendan Fraser, and Don Cheadle, aren’t enough when the screenplay is so on the nose and the crappy digital cinematography by James Muro is the icing on the cake. It’s your typical monochromatic filtered nonsense that became too much of a fad around this time, and is still an eyesore today.