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You know how in movies with multiple story lines there are always some subplots you look forward to more than others? In Babel, for example, I'd perk up whenever the Rinko-Kikuchi-in-Tokyo story line was on-screen, while the reappearance of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as a married couple traveling in Morocco was a surefire buzzkill (and a prescient foretaste of the actors' puzzling lack of chemistry in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Crossing Over (the Weinstein Company), written and directed by Wayne Kramer, has solved this differential-levels-of-caring conundrum by making sure all of its plot threads are equally dreadworthy.
With five or six separate stories tied together only by their Los Angeles setting and immigration-related themes, Crossing Over is a headache even to summarize. Max Brogan (Harrison Ford) is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent (ICE being the suave new acronym for the former INS) who sometimes acts outside the law in order to help those in need. His partner, Hamid (Cliff Curtis), is an Iranian-American immigrant struggling with the decidedly nontraditional sluttiness of his sister, Zahra (Melody Khazae). A Bangladeshi teenager (Summer Bishil) makes the mistake of reading a vaguely pro-al-Qaida essay aloud to her high school class, resulting not only in some serious heckling but in an investigation by federal authorities. An Australian actress seeking a green card (Alice Eve) agrees to a bizarre sexual quid-pro-quo deal with a high-up immigration bureaucrat (Ray Liotta, his inner eyelids sporting a curious new pleat). Oh, and a Korean high-schooler on the brink of becoming a naturalized citizen (Justin Chon) gets mixed up with some Asian gangbangers who are either plotting a convenience-store holdup or re-enacting Gran Torino.
Oh, Jesus. I forgot about the Liotta character's wife, played by Ashley Judd, who's a defense lawyer specializing in immigration issues. She dreams of adopting a Nigerian orphan she's working with (you can tell Judd cares about Africa because she wears a gold pendant shaped like the continent at all times). There are some more people of varying immigration status and melanin level running around, but you get the idea. Accidents happen, crises cross, and chickens come home to roost. Each scene—and I mean each and every scene—is preceded by a looooong aerial establishing shot of L.A.'s mean streets that was seemingly salvaged from Michael Mann's cutting-room floor.
Crossing Over couldn't be better intentioned or more timely. (Yesterday's news item about the Dominican man fraudulently posing as an immigration lawyer is grim proof that the exploitation of green-card-seeking illegals is a thriving business.) But it also couldn't be preachier or more reductive of the issues it proposes to explore: assimilation, transnationalism, post-9/11 governmental paranoia. In the end, the movie's let's-examine-this-from-all-sides approach is simply muddled: After making the case that America's treatment of its immigrants is only one step removed from Abu Ghraib, Kramer asks us to get all choked up about the "sublime promise" of U.S. citizenship.
The scene in which this "sublime promise" is invoked (by Cliff Curtis, the engaging Maori actor who's become action cinema's go-to brown guy) is the movie's glorious nadir, the moment when its leaden self-seriousness transmutes into comedy gold. While the Korean kid, in mid liquor-store robbery, holds a gun to the head of a terrified, blood-spattered woman, Curtis' Hamid embarks on a leisurely and highly abstract pep talk about naturalization and the American dream. You keep expecting the beleaguered shopkeeper to pipe up, "Could someone sublimely promise to get this gun off my temple sometime soon?" (A number of life-and-death conversations in this movie take place in absurdly unsuitable circumstances, including a murder confession blurted out during a citizenship ceremony while a soul singer trills "The Star-Spangled Banner" in the background. In Wayne Kramer's world, no one seems capable of saying, "Can we talk about this at another time?")
The movie's huge cast never coalesces into an ensemble, since very few of the lead actors share screen time. But Ford does what he can with his decontextualized nice-guy role, and Summer Bishil (who played a similarly victimized character in last year's Towelhead) shines in a few heartwrenching (if wildly implausible) scenes as the Muslim girl threatened with deportation. Wayne Kramer, himself a naturalized immigrant from South Africa, has made two other movies, The Cooler and Running Scared, that were more admirable for their energy (and fine female performances) than for their accomplishment. Crossing Over is his worst movie so far, but its heart is in the right place. If the next one is this bad, though, is it too late to consider deportation proceedings?