Crossing Over (2009): Wayne Kramer’s Tale of Immigrants

Set in contemporary Los Angeles, “Crossing Over,” Wayne Kramer’s third feature, is a timely, well-intentioned border melodrama, centering on a group of illegal immigrants eagerly waiting to become U.S. residents.  Problem is, Kramer’s screenplay is too literal and contrived, defying credibility and dwelling too much on the sensationalistic aspects of the stories.

After sitting on the shelves for quite some time, the movie will be released by the Weinstein Company on February 27, but I doubt if many people will see the picture, which will be dismissed by most critics, in the theaters.

As a melodrama, “Crossing Over” owes its existence to a recent cycle of American movies, such as “Crash” and “Babel,” which are ensemble-driven and based on interrelated stories linked together by a political issue.  Not as good or accomplished as those pictures, Kramer’s intermittently involving meller is too schematic and technically shapeless, lacking rhythm or continuity.  Arguably, the film’s most striking novelty is the composition of its characters, representing a mixture of classes and nationalities, rather than the “usual suspects” in such films, poor, working class Mexicans.

This may be the first movie in which Harrison Ford is part of a larger ensemble, in a secondary role, playing an older man; it’s shocking to realize that Ford suddenly looks his own age (mid-sixties).  Ford plays Max Brogan, an agent working for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Los Angeles, and as such, is sworn and committed to protect immigration laws.  His daily work consists of handling thousands of illegals trying to cross over into the U.S. in search of better lives for themselves and their families. 

The tale interweaves episodes from the “routine” work of four main characters: Brogan, Hamid Baraheri (Cliff Curtis), Brogan’s ICE partner, Denise Frankel (Ashley Judd), an immigration defense attorney, and Denise’s husband, applications adjudicator Cole Frankel (Ray Liotta).  Singly and jointly, they handle half a dozen immigrants, each with his/her own problem and struggle. 

The movie begins on the wrong foot with a scene that defies credibility. During a raid of a factory, Brogan is (improbably) asked by Mireya Sanchez (Alice Braga), a Mexican worker and single mom about to be deported, to take care of her young child.

Early on, we are introduced to a young, attractive couple: Brit Gavin Kossef (Jim Sturgess of “21” fame), a struggling musician trying to build a career while working his day job, and Australian actress Claire Shepard (Alice Eve), whose goal is to become the next Nicole (read Kidman) or Naomi (Watts), and willingly prostitutes herself to earn her green card. 

Improbable coincidences continue to pile up when, upset that her application is lost, Claire gets into a car accident that involves Col Frankel, who just happens to work for the immigration authorities.  One thing leads to another, and the couple soon “negotiates” sort of barter: he would help her case for sessions of steamy sex, carried out in shabby motels whenever he feels like.  As for Gavin, he’s an atheist who’s willing to pass as a religious Jew if that’s what the process calls for. 

Later on, agent Brogan attends a family celebration of Hamid Baraheri, where he meets and shows personal interest in Hamid’s tough sister Zahra (Melody Khazae); shortly after, she is found dead.  Not neglecting youths, Kramer’s scenario also contains a young Bangladeshi Taslima Jahangir (Summer Bishil) and a Korean teen Yong Kim (Justin Chon), caught between two worlds.  Arguably, the most interesting and timely story is that of a high school girl whose provocative essay about terrorism and 9/11 draws the FBI attention and puts her entire family at risk.

Thematically, the film’s message is worthy and relevant. Agent Brogan’s sense of duty and compassion reflects the current immigration challenges faced by the U.S. in the new millennium, a combined result of broader political and demographic forces. 

The U.S. still offers the kinds of hopes, social opportunities, and upward mobility that no other country does, but realizing those dreams often comes at a price, and the process is painful, humiliating, and expensive.  While some earn their citizenship legally through lengthy bureaucratic processes, the use of the right lawyers, and money, most others find themselves out of luck in a capitalistic country where seemingly anything can be bought, even if the buying doesn’t always involve cash.  Indeed, in this picture, the commodities of sex, violence and betrayal are the currencies.  Some wait in line for permission to enter the U.S. while others take matters into their own hands.

Though Kramer would like us to believe that the various depicted lives are crisscrossed and interwoven by necessity, accident, and fate, you can detect right away the manipulative machinations of the calculated plot and moralistic intent.

Production values are mediocre, which could be a function of the budget. Visually, Kramer and his director of photography James Whitaker try to increase the unity of the episodic movie by using overhead shots of Los Angeles, during the day and at night, images of numerous intersecting freeways and highways.

“The Cooler,” Kramer’s feature debut, a genre item that premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Fest, is still his most impressive work, boasting good acting from William H. Macy, Maria Bello, and especially Alec Baldwin, who received a Supporting Actor nomination. Kramer’s 2006 follow-up, “Running Scared,” was a poorly executed actioner for New Line that flopped.  Kramer’s new film is obviously personal: Hailing from South Africa, he has been living in this country for 22 years, so he must have encountered the immigration authorities in one way or another.  Nonetheless, “Crossing Over” again shows that making a personal picture about a socially relevant problem doesn’t necessarily result in an artistically or emotionally interesting work.