‘Crossing Over’: Over the line

February 26, 2009

 

“Crossing Over” has been sitting on the shelf so long that, apparently, it lost an entire subplot involving Sean Penn.

 

This “Crash” wannabe (and “Crash,” after all, was the essence of faux Altmanesque) is too heavy-handed by half in its attempt to say something meaningful about immigration and the American dream. The fact that its dramatic climax comes in the middle of a rendition of the national anthem – at a citizenship ceremony, no less – tells you all you need to know about how badly it pins the needle on the subtlety meter.

 

Written and directed by Wayne Kramer (“The Cooler”), “Crossing Over” intertwines several Los Angeles-based plot lines in the vague hope that they’ll resonate and accrue emotional power. That only works, however, when the individual subplots aren’t pounded home in the first place. In this case, the blunt instrument is a sledgehammer.

 

Harrison Ford plays Max Brogan, an agent of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (or ICE). For a change, Ford gets to play his age: He’s a guy who’s seen too much – who believes in his job but feels like there’s a right and wrong way to do it. But he works within a system that frowns on empathy, a trait he can’t suppress in himself.

 

He and his partner, Hamid (Cliff Curtis), a naturalized citizen from Iran, take part in a raid in which Max grabs Mireya (Alice Braga), an undocumented Mexican worker in a factory. She pleads with Max to let her retrieve her young son, who’s being watched by a neighbor. He can’t – but does take a slip of paper with the neighbor’s name and address. But when his coworkers razz him, he tosses it on the ground (only to feel guilty and retrieve it later).

 

Max’s plot takes him in two directions: returning Mireya’s son to her parents in Mexico (and subsequently searching for Mireya who, after being deported, tries to sneak back into the U.S. to find her son); and getting entangled with Hamid and his Iranian-born family. Hamid’s father is about to receive his citizenship – but when Max is invited to a family party, he discovers the hostile tension between the family and Hamid’s sister, who is American-born and whose embrace of American values and disdain for old-world sensibilities infuriate her father and brothers.

 

Meanwhile, Gavin (Jim Sturgess), a Brit who’s a would-be rocker, and Claire (Alice Eve), an Australian who wants to be an actress, commiserate and scheme to get green cards that will allow them to stay in L.A. Gavin, who is nominally Jewish, tries to use religious studies as his hook for staying, despite the fact that he hasn’t set foot in temple since his bar mitzvah.

 

Alice, meanwhile, has overstayed her visa. She’s got an acting job lined up – an illegal move – but then strays into the path of a predatory immigration official, Cole (Ray Liotta). He offers a straight-up trade: sex – and lots of it – in exchange for him expediting her green card.

 

Cole’s wife, Denise (Ashley Judd), ironically (or, more likely, calculatedly, to create dramatic irony), is an immigration lawyer, defending individuals against the machine-mentality of the American government. She’s trying to find a home for a young African girl who has escaped a murderous regime that has claimed her parents.

 

And then she becomes the attorney for a young Bangladeshi, Taslima (Summer Bishil), whom ICE targets because she gives a speech at school in which she tries to offer insight into the thinking of the 9/11 plotters. As it turns out, Taslima’s parents and Taslima are in the country illegally, but her two youngest siblings are American-born. So she and her family face a horrible choice as the government puts the squeeze on.

 

There’s more – including an honor killing within a Middle Eastern family over a female member who has brought disgrace, and an Asian teen who is bullied into participating in gang violence (shades of “Gran Torino”) just as he is about to be naturalized.

 

But it all feels like a confused polemic, constructed specifically to make its points: that the American dream lures people into committing self-destructive acts, that Americans aren’t particularly gracious hosts to potential new citizens, that immigration policy is heartless, that good people are powerless against the soulless grinding of the government machinery.

 

Which is too bad because there’s a solid cast caught in the melodramatic mechanics of this script. Ford is better than he’s been in ages, playing the character’s frustration and powerlessness, an intriguing change of pace for an actor who normally is large and in charge. Liotta is reptilian and pathetic as the exploitive immigration official, while Alice Eve finds surprising resolve and determination as his victim.

 

But there isn’t a moment that doesn’t feel contrived to provoke a specific reaction from the audience. All movies are manipulative – but you feel this one poking and prodding you toward the required emotion in every single scene.

 

 

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