Get local news delivered straight to your phone

J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash is a pure distillation of an obsessive idea. There is no room in it for anything but sex and death—the collision of metal, the collision of bodies, the wondrous modern roar of these perfect machines meeting in every possible permutation, the sexiness of speed and the racing of turned-on blood. Its repetitiousness is at once numbing and electrifying: crumpled metal, bruised flesh, blood, semen, leather, hair, fuel, a horror table of the elements repeated like an incantation. Ballard’s Crash is afraid of nothing, least of all itself; reckless and beautifully concentrated, it goes all the way.

Ballard has said that David Cronenberg’s film picks up where the novel left off, but writers’ motives concerning potentially lucrative film projects of their work are so murky that it’s hard to parse that complimentary quote. Indeed, Cronenberg’s gripping, decadeslong fascination with the body treacherous and the too human adaptabilities of technology seem to make him the perfect candidate for this project, but watching his Crash is like seeing the book through the wrong end of a telescope. The wrecks and sex are there, but the connection between them isn’t made except in the most banal way: Cars sure turn these people on.

It is possible that Crash doesn’t lend itself to live-action interpretation, although its soul has been captured by another medium—in the ’80s the disturbed Italian comic book Rankxerox borrowed its airports, speedways, and wounded sex for the “Happy Birthday, Luba” issue in an interpretation so close to Ballard’s soothing apocalyptica as to make no difference. But far from picking up where the book left off, even sequentially, Cronenberg’s Crash seems to misunderstand Ballard’s intentions from the first. It begins with scenes that throw into question everything that follows.

A sexy blonde presses her bare breast onto an airplane’s nose, and a man comes up behind her and raises her skirt. Meanwhile, another man enjoys a dark-haired girl in a camera room of a movie studio. Already, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), the blonde, and James Ballard (James Spader), the camera-room guy, have established themselves as a highly sexed couple with what we can safely call an open relationship. When James gets in a horrible accident that pulls him and Catherine into the underground of collision eroticism, it just seems like an excuse to have more sex.

In an airport hospital after his accident, James meets Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), whose car he hit and whose husband he killed. The unremorseful Helen is already acquainted with the crash obsessives and their enigmatic ringleader, Vaughan (Elias Koteas), when James smashes into her—her first act to is tear open her blouse. She later takes him to one of Vaughan’s rogue demonstrations, a re-creation of the fatal James Dean crash, and he meets more of Vaughan’s unflappable acolytes, including his chief driver and Gabrielle, a blonde trussed fetish-style into chrome-and-leather supports (Rosanna Arquette).

Crash is angular and cool, all empty spaces and clogged freeways, but it’s stylized without being atmospheric. The depopulated city has no tone or order, nothing to create friction or signal anarchy when colliding with the characters’ all-consuming sexuality. In this empty world, the crash freaks’ endless physical collisions are as meaningless as those in any porn film—a genre that discussions of Crash often refer to—and as frequent.

Sex scene follows sex scene ad infinitum, and although Cronenberg has said in interviews that viewers should treat them as narrative—pay attention to who’s on top, who has an orgasm—they’re not politically or emotionally revealing. At best they’re uninteresting, at worst, ridiculous. They lead to lines like Catherine’s monologue of questions (about Vaughan) while in bed with James: “What do you think his anus looks like?” she asks. “Describe his anus.” (Sensibly, he says nothing.)

Support City Paper!

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

If they don’t talk they seem even sillier; there’s an up-for-anything gameness straight out of the most slipshod pornography in scenes like the one where a clothed Catherine leans over an apartment terrace and, hearing her husband’s footsteps, pulls her trick skirt apart to reveal her bare buttocks, or the one in which Helen climbs onto her new friend James in his wrecked car, or the one where Helen and Gabrielle curl up together in a back seat, or when James and Vaughan wordlessly begin making out (the movie’s only mouth-to-mouth kiss). One ridiculous interval finds Gabrielle, Helen, and James watching a Volvo safety demonstration film with rapt attention, each with a hand working in another’s lap. The film’s Swedish narration, the language of wholesome pornography, is Crash’s only joke.

As the mentor/mechanic/outlaw, Elias Koteas does make a wonderful Vaughan, a burly butch pansexual crosshatched with scars like an Arthur Rackham tree—his personification of sex and danger is nothing like the clichéd hulking movie stud. Spader is his usual chilly self, and Hunter is so prim-looking she seems miscast in everything lately, but Arquette actually shines as the ruined Gabrielle. She’s the only character for whom embracing this peculiar underground is an act of defiance. At a Mercedes dealership, she bends over a convertible, revealing the curious convocation of sensual promise and damage that is is her body—black leather miniskirt, fishnet stockings, weighty leg braces, long wormy scar on the back of one thigh—to the flustered salesman. She’s not turned on by his addled desire, but by her own. It’s the one case in which Cronenberg’s Crash doesn’t get Ballard’s equation backward. Elsewhere, instead of imbuing the cold metal of cars with the heat of human desire, Crash makes sex look as inert as chrome.

“From the director of The Nutty Professor,” proclaims the ad for Liar Liar, and it had better. When Eddie Murphy needed comedy career resuscitation badly, Tom Shadyac helped give it to him. Similarly in danger of being derailed from the comfortable $20-million-per-movie track after the egregious Cable Guy, Jim Carrey needs a solid comedy that showcases his brand of passive-aggressive acting out and appeals to kids.

Liar Liar has almost everything in place. It’s full of vast, shiny surfaces, a grown-up movie in everything but content; it looks expensive without being daunting. The premise—a glib, selfish lawyer’s neglected son wishes that Dad could go a day without lying—is simple and rather touching. Most importantly, the character of Fletcher Reede gives Carrey a chance to act like a person without sacrificing his talent for goofiness.

It’s logical to assume that since kids adore Carrey’s infantile antics, he’d make a perfect Disneyland daddy—the kind who hardly ever shows up but when he does is so concentratedly entertaining that the kids prefer their absent funny father to the good-natured bore who’s been hanging around Mom, reeking of awkward good intentions. Carrey stops just short of indulging himself completely—out-childishing the child—and his Fletcher opens the channels between youth and adulthood at his convenience. At work he has the truculent self-absorption of a 2-year-old—that’s what passes for ambition—and with 5-year-old Max (Justin Cooper) he’s the troop leader full of absurdly mature suggestions that make his son giggle at their unlikelihood.

The former Mrs. Reede (Maura Tierney) tolerates the attentions of Jerry (Cary Elwes) as if she knows she’ll never live in a world as highly colored, if unstable, as the one dominated by her ex. She resents Fletcher for making her into a liar for their kid’s sake—”Daddy’s very sorry he got held up in court,” is one of the things she routinely has to tell Max, “but he promises he’ll pick you up from school tomorrow.”

Abandoned at his birthday party, Max wishes that Dad were unable to lie for 24 hours. His wish comes true immediately—to the possible detriment of Fletcher’s career. Fletcher’s shock at his inability to lie is twice as funny as the hard truths he’s forced to tell. Carrey does double takes on his double takes; his first honest morning at the office is an ocean of aghast reactions, wave upon wave of careless remarks and horrified expressions. Not only is he forced to tell the truth, he’s having one of those days that need no phony excuses—everything truly does go wrong. In between trying to keep his promises and trying to win a tricky case, Fletcher gets into two spectacular fights, one with a pen and the other with himself, both of which he loses. But Carrey also does a fine job of showing how exhausting the day is. Telling the truth wears Fletcher down more thoroughly than his lying life ever did—the burden of guilt is weightier than the chore of keeping the threads of his fictions untangled.

Fletcher’s job and the script’s sentimental premise aren’t quite in sync. It isn’t Dad’s lies that sadden Max, it’s the fact that they don’t spend enough time together. (A less secure kid wouldn’t wish for the truth, out of fear that Dad might say he had a better offer.) Also, as a lawyer Fletcher represents the unrepresentable, the ATM-jackers other lawyers are too noble to touch (oh, sure), a career move the script treats as further proof of his weakness of character. He’s never shown actually lying on behalf of a bad guy, although in his honest fit he does bellow into the phone at a repeat offender, “Stop being a criminal, you moron!”

But the big central case involves upscale Jennifer Tilly (who must stop playing button-eyed bimbos now), the trampy wife of a rich man who wants half of his everything in violation of a prenuptial agreement that prohibited adultery on her part, and which she flagrantly violated in every room of the house, in photos, and on tape. She is appalling, without conscience and decidedly not innocent, but since the genre calls for Fletcher to win her case—with honesty; he finds a legal loophole—we’re asked to despise her and root for him. In the end, they both get their way. Honest, sure, but it hardly seems fair.CP