dir. Haggis
Opens Fri May 6
Various Theaters

The cinema of sprawling coincidences and chance encounters (in which A bumps into B, who just happens to know C, who is secretly having an affair with D, who works for F, who shares a dark secret with A) exhibits a catnip pull for filmmakers--the framework allows a director the opportunity to indulge their god complex to an even larger degree than usual. For such a large-scale canvas to work, however, the storyteller either has to have an exquisite feel for the small ironies (Robert Altman's Short Cuts) or pump up the energy to such a degree that the too-pat coincidences don't stick (P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, which jacked up the conflicts between its characters to a point where the climactic, miraculous disaster felt not only plausible, but needed). Either way, if you ever pause too long to linger on the contrived details, you're dead in the water.

Crash, the directing debut of Million Dollar Baby screenwriter Paul Haggis, certainly doesn't want for hubris, but ultimately it's an exhibit of laudable ambition overwhelming Haggis' still-developing narrative abilities. Although Haggis' would-be epic portrayal of race relations in Los Angeles (triggered via an escalating series of automobile mishaps) sports a handful of genuinely searing moments, it's hard to shake the sense of someone constantly rearranging 3 by 5 cards behind the scenes for maximum impact. (In particular, a late-blooming development involving a threatened child stands as an enraging example of Haggis cynically attempting to have it both ways.)

The cast, led by co-producer Don Cheadle's tragically clear-eyed homicide cop, almost makes it work, though, with special mention going to Ludacris (as a carjacker hilariously obsessed with The Man) and especially Sandra Bullock, admirably playing against type as an upper-class housewife with a major chip on her shoulder. (Hearing her spew forth a torrent of blistering racist invectives carries the nasty, jolting buzz of hearing a dirty joke in church). Together, they can't quite make Haggis' preachy puppet show feel entirely organic--but they certainly take some of the glare off of the strings.