Movie Review: Crossing Over (2009)

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Although I believe I only attempted quilt-making once in my life, a major lesson was learned in the process. Namely-- and despite my love of color and pattern and big and bold-- in order for everything to go together and complement each other, the designs must work in tandem as a whole.

In other words, you can't have one extremely decorative or flowery piece of fabric right next to an old beat up denim patch next to something that looks like one of those horrible reject ties given to American dads on Father's Day. There has to be a sense of harmony or fluidity as one piece of fabric melds into another and if you stare at it long enough, all you see is one ornate tapestry that draws your attention to it in its entirety rather than wanting to pick it apart piece by piece.

It's about this time I'm sure you're wondering, “What on Earth does this have to do with the new film from Wayne Kramer?” And honestly, the answer is “Everything.”

In fact, all it takes is one glimpse at the poster for Crossing Over, which follows up Kramer’s terrific indie The Cooler (starring William H. Macy and Maria Bello) which illustrates the ways that Los Angeles freeways and highways interconnect in a color scheme reminiscent of the American flag.

Of course, first you must move your eyes away from the obligatory “talent shot” at the top of the poster that shows some of the highlights in the ensemble cast headed up by a nice, understated Harrison Ford (as well as Ashley Judd, Ray Liotta, and Jim Sturgess in supporting roles) which seems overly photo-shopped into his ornate decoration below. Underneath the star power, we're presented with decorative red and white roads that-- upon first glance-- look like yarn, piping, or cords and you get a sense that that Kramer was using the idea of weaving and/or thread-work in what he aspired to be a cinematic collage.

It only takes a few moments after the film begins to immediately grasp the works that influenced Kramer which by now have echoed throughout every single film review for Crossing Over thus far-- namely it's an amalgam of Babel, Traffic, Short Cuts, What's Cooking?, Crash, and countless other multi-layered character pieces that introduce us to more than a dozen individuals whose lives intersect in a variety of ways over the course of its running time. Likewise, I’d also hazard to throw Fast Food Nation, Maria Full of Grace, Amores Perros, House of Sand and Fog, 21 Grams, and ESL into the politically volatile patchwork that takes a look at all sides of the immigration issue in the United States of America in present day.

Initially slated to run at roughly 2 1/2 hours before reportedly The Weinstein Company insisted upon roughly a half an hour of cuts (including the willing Sean Penn who bowed out of the film for political reasons of his own), the finished work seems as though it's full of jarring stops and starts that give us as much whiplash as you'd face on a Los Angeles freeway.

Moving uneasily between characters-- the film suffers when it spends an inadequate amount of time on the stories that really hit us as in the case of Towelhead star Summer Bishil’s turn as a Bangladeshi devout Muslim teenager whose speech about wanting to understand the 9/11 hijackers is reported by her principal to the office of Homeland Security and she's threatened with deportation. Yet instead of investigating that further, Kramer cuts away to endless subplots involving characters who soon begin to feel like stereotypes.

Those who are shortchanged the most and should’ve been left on the cutting room floor altogether involve a few including a Korean teenager who gets mixed up with a bad crowd just days away from his Naturalization ceremony (shades of early ‘90s South Central dramas like Menace II Society and Boyz in the Hood, anyone?) and the un-involving struggle of a young Australian actress (the otherwise talented Alice Eve) who arrives illegally in Los Angeles seeking fame and fortune only to prostitute herself for a green card.

Spending a ridiculous amount of time exploiting Eve with so many topless shots, it feels a little like a Cinemax late night movie; although most men won't complain-- sadly, it dawned on me after the film ended that only one female adult character and one minor female in the entire movie gets a happy ending.

But, forgive me as I digress and we'll move back to Eve's Claire who first wins and then loses our sympathy in an uneven handling of the cliched situation Kramer dwells far too often on, involving her decision to become a virtual sexual slave to the unspeakably sleazy and married immigration applications adjudicator Cole Frankel (Ray Liotta).

While Cole is the film’s devil, it’s his wife Denise (Ashley Judd) who is the film’s angel as a human rights crusading immigration defense attorney who fights to protect the very people her husband willingly exploits.

The film’s central storyline follows Harrison Ford’s Max Brogan-- an agent employed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement-- who witnesses firsthand the number of holes in the system, realizing that nothing is as simple as it appears every evening on Lou Dobbs' presentation of the issue as there’s good and bad every which way he turns.

When he becomes personally invested in the life in one illegal immigrant—a young mother (Alice Braga) who begs him to check up on her young son—Brogan begins calling in sick, testing out his Spanish, and trying to help make just one story end happily by returning the boy to his home in Mexico.

Of course, we know that the situations that drive people across the border are ridiculously complex and while Kramer gets bonus points for taking an unusual look at the immigration problem by trying to show it from every ethnicity (including one rather amusing subplot featuring 21 and Across the Universe’s Jim Sturgess as a British atheist who tries to pass himself off as a super devout Jew to gain a green card and hopefully a music career), ultimately he tears his own audacious quilt apart.

While not a complete failure and you’re definitely invested in the timely subject of the film-- unfortunately, as soon as we begin to feel a connection with one character, Kramer moves on. It's a work that's riddled with an over-abundance of speech-making—most ridiculously in a contrived and overly flowery confrontation during a store robbery at the end that sounds like a political campaign advertisement. And by hitting us on the head so hard instead of sewing things in gently, we're also left dazed by the overwhelming aftermath of too many loose threads that probably were ripped apart in the hasty editing process to meet studio distribution demands which cheats the final outcome for a subplot involving Brogan’s Iranian-American partner (Cliff Curtis).

Losing you in an uneasy, grainy, and awkward sea of distractions, you’re left with the realization of how much potential the film squandered in its excessive need to be big and bold. Ultimately, although the heart was in the right place for Kramer’s personal film he made as an American immigrant himself-- essentially Crossing Over is the type of quilt you’ll end up putting in the closet. For, in the times you do try to bring it out, you're faced with the harsh realization that no matter how many colors and designs are in it, instead of complimenting your furniture in a way so that things start to look new, you’re disappointed by the inevitable realization that what it mostly does is clash-- by offering nothing beneficial or interesting to a situation we face every single day in these United States.