Crossing Over takes on immigration policy in the U.S. with the same cinematic gusto that director Wayne Kramer exhibited in The Cooler and Running Scared. But the combination of the director's showy style and the heavy Big Issue subject matter doesn't always coalesce gracefully.
The multi-layered story is a kindred spirit to other issue-oriented patchwork narratives like Traffic, Syriana and Crash, but Kramer's approach is far different. The filmmaker is too much of an entertainer for the faux-documentary aesthetic of Soderbergh or Gaghan, and he's too intelligent for the hackneyed didacticism of Paul Haggis.
What he gives us instead is a cross-section of sometimes contrived situations meant to capture what it means to be an immigrant in the United States today. It's sophisticated melodrama--unlike Traffic, you never forget that you are watching a film; characters have arcs and learn lessons and suffer consequences, but they don't preach (for the most part), and are in possession of some depth, as opposed to the walking stereotypes in Crash.
Carrying much of the film is Harrison Ford as Max Brogan, an immigration officer burdened by an active conscience that demands he take his work home, as when he seeks out the son of detained illegal Mireya (Alice Braga) and delivers him to his grandparents in Mexico. Ford's performance is either tastefully understated or phoned-in; Brogan internalizes so much that the actor is given little to do besides brood and scowl and drink scotch.
Cliff Curtis plays Brogan's partner, Hamid, an Iranian-American whose father is about to be naturalized. Hamid's rebellious sister Zahra (Melody Khazae), the only member of her family to be born in the U.S., is dating a co-worker who sells counterfeit IDs to foreigners. One of his customers is Claire (Alice Eve), an aspiring actress from Australia who has landed a recurring role on an American television show, if only she can produce a work permit. Claire is so desperate for a green card that she submits to the lecherous wishes of Cole Frankel (Ray Liotta), an immigration adjudicator who promises her legal status in exchange for sex.
Cole is married to Denise (Ashley Judd), an immigration defense attorney whose latest case is the teenaged Taslima (Summer Bishil), a Muslim from Bangladesh whose family has resided illegally in the U.S. for years. This thread is particularly interesting and incendiary; Taslima is first seen giving a speech for an assignment in class where she dares to vocalize her desire to understand the motivations of the 9/11 terrorists. Her argument for understanding is not out of line but certainly ill-advised. The assignment is brought to the attention of the FBI and Taslima is soon arrested. She's faced with almost certain deportation, and the options presented to her parents force a heartbreaking dilemma that culminates in one of the film's more gut-wrenching scenarios.
Another plot involves Gavin (Jim Sturgess), an atheist Jew who fakes piety because his job at a Jewish school may help him achieve legal status, provided he can prove his validity to authorities as a "religious leader."
The intersecting stories merge to paint a sprawling portrait of the situations, dilemmas and policies that determine the lives of so many foreigners living in the U.S. To someone who knows little about immigration laws and policy (like myself), the film is at times illuminating and infuriating. The problem, I suspect, is that the more a viewer is informed on the reality of the subject, the less authentic the movie will appear. The characters are too conventionally drawn and their problems too simplistically resolved to have the ring of truth, and it's detrimental to the story's power.
Kramer is always most at home when viscerally illustrating his point through violence, and he expertly stages a liquor store robbery late in the film to shocking effect.
This confrontational approach doesn't always succeed; a subplot involving the sordid details of a character's death is presented through a stylized flashback that walks a fine line between hyper-emotive and tastelessly sensational. Kramer also has a penchant for taking beautiful female characters and coupling lingering nudity with emotional and physical degradation, and while it was evocative and somewhat appropriate for The Cooler and Running Scared, here it feels gratuitous.
Still, the film is well-intentioned and welcoming. It's also entertaining--something that many of the big issues pictures have lately lacked--and for all its faults, it's never less than enthralling.
Most of the film's flaws didn't emerge for me until well after I'd left the theater and thought about it a while. The fact that Crossing Over would cause anyone to think in the first place is what makes it worth seeing.
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