Heavy Going

Photo: Courtesy of Screen Media Films

Crossing Over is an L.A.-based ensemble social-problem melodrama for people who thought Crash was a bit too subtle. In that one, Paul Haggis constructed every scene to drive home the point that racism is a very, very bad thing. Now, writer-director Wayne Kramer shows how immigration—mostly illegal, but in some cases by the book—creates mayhem in the lives of would-be Americans: how it leads to unequal power relations, economic exploitation, cultural upheaval, maltreatment of children, and the disintegration of families. There is no single thesis, as in Crash, only a series of winding, overlapping odysseys. (This is visually reinforced by overhead shots of winding, overlapping freeways.) The most memorable scene is also among the most maladroit ever committed to film, a liquor-store robbery that begins with people getting splattered over the walls and builds to an earnest dialogue about the “sublime promise” on the faces of immigrants about to take the oath of citizenship. The scene is a career-killer. The whole movie is, in a way.

That’s too bad, because as cornball as it is, I like Crossing Over better than Haggis’s multiple-Oscar winner, which was both cornball and reductionist: A universe in which we’re all puppets at the mercy of our racism is finally as simpleminded as one in which we’re all beaming multiculti zombies in a rainbow coalition. Kramer at least creates old-fashioned conscience dramas where people have room to make choices, to breathe. Harrison Ford plays an immigration agent who commands raids on factories where scores of illegals drop their tools and make a run for it, only to be swept up in the net. A young Mexican woman (Alice Braga) cries out to him that she has a little son who’s being looked after by someone; she has to get money to that woman, she has to get her boy. Taunted by his colleagues for appearing namby-pamby, the agent shrugs it off—then spends the rest of the movie on a grim border-crossing mission to reunite the child and his mom. Contrived? Sure, but Ford’s tight, furrowed visage becomes increasingly poignant, and our memories of him as a larky, whiz-bang, can-do American movie hero makes the slowness of his character’s trek even more heartbreaking.

Kramer could have spun a whole movie out of one of his subplots: the Muslim high-school girl (Summer Bishil) who delivers a class paper asserting that the 9/11 hijackers were not cowards but did what they did because it was the only way to be heard—and who watches in horror as the FBI swoops down on her family. (The parents turn out to be illegals.) But the dialogue is from hunger. When Ashley Judd, as an immigrant lawyer, pleads that the girl isn’t a threat to national security, the special-agent meanie on the case fires back with “Did you take a look at her bedroom? How austere it is?” That’s flash-card dramaturgy, unworthy of the character or the movie. It makes you forget what a fertile, open-ended setup this is, the collision of a naïve girl’s idealism and a paranoid government—the stuff of either scathing satire or Antigone-like tragedy.

The South African–born Kramer has dabbled in many genres—among his films are the sweet but overrated gambling romance The Cooler and the underrated shoot-’em-up Running Scared—but they all have strong fairy-tale underpinnings, and in Crossing Over you can feel (painfully) the mythic storyteller trying to accommodate the social realist. Nothing falls into place, though if Ray Liotta weren’t so cruelly photographed (I know his complexion is a challenge, but that’s why cinematographers go to school), his scenes with Alice Eve as a young Aussie actress who needs him to approve her green-card application might have been excruciating to watch for the right reasons (her victimization); instead, we end up thinking how much luckier she is to have skin that’s pink and firm enough to survive the lighting. There are a bunch of other clunky immigrant subplots (the Jews get a comic one, the Turks a scary one), but it isn’t until the massacre–cum–civics tutorial in the liquor store that Crossing Over crosses into the mythic realm of camp. What a waste. I still say it’s better than Crash, though.

Even if we can’t remember the title, we’ve all seen some movie sometime in which a 13-year-old Catholic-schoolboy watches a plush blonde undressing in a window and readies his binoculars and right hand. Then they meet in a cute-embarrassing way (he gets caught sniffing around her stuff) and she’s nice to him, but the word on the block is she’s a bad woman and must be shunned; and she confides to the smitten boy she’s in love with a married man who can’t leave his wife. That’s An American Affair—except there’s one teensy wrinkle. The married guy is President Kennedy, and what complicates things aren’t parents and teachers but CIA spooks, Castro, and pissed-off Bay of Pigs survivors. It’s a spanking new hybrid: the paranoid-conspiracy coming-of-age teen-sex movie.

Given the potential for bad laughs, An American Affair has a surprising number of juicy scenes. A painter who espouses the aesthetic that “form is dead,” Catherine Caswell (Gretchen Mol) pays young Adam (Cameron Bright) to rip up her spiffily designed back garden—so the screenwriter, Alex Metcalf, can have them bond by messing up the lawn and spattering paint on each other and get a nice end-of-American-civilization metaphor out of it, to boot. Metcalf layers his own canvas with shades of gray. Is Catherine spying on JFK for her CIA ex (Mark Pellegrino) and his superior (James Rebhorn)? For his part, Adam is one naughty cherub: Comforting the distraught Catherine in her darkest hour, he can’t help snaking his hand into her robe.

The reason to see An American Affair is Gretchen Mol. She has a mild, natural way of holding herself that’s likably unactressy—in every film, she seems both smart and grounded. What makes her exciting is her skin, the way it flushes and gives the game away when Catherine tries to keep her feelings out of sight. Skin this sensitive, skin that can register the slightest emotional vibration, is a rare gift for an actress (the careers of Renaissance painters rose and fell on their female subjects’ coloring), and the ability to control it like this is borderline supernatural. I’d cast her in any role except a successful spy—she’s too damn transparent.

Crossing Over
Directed by Wayne Kramer.
The Weinstein Company. R.

An American Affair
Directed by William Olsson.
Screen Media Films. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Heavy Going