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Crossing Over's immigration drama heads south

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An old “Saturday Night Live” sketch once envisioned a TV series called “The Self-Righteous!” in which strident professionals did nothing but get up in each other’s grills: “I’m a doctor, damn it!” “Well, I’m a lawyer, damn it!”

I flashed on “The Self-Righteous!” within a few minutes of Crossing Over, a sprawling immigration-themed drama. Veteran Immigration & Customs Enforcement officer Max Brogan (Harrison Ford) inquires after an ailing detainee. A processing officer sneers, “Jesus Christ, Brogan, everything’s a humanitarian crisis with you!” and bang, they’re sniping at each other like angry terriers.

Writer/director Wayne Kramer closely follows the template of the Oscar-winner Crash, partly with the structure of crisscrossing lives of overstressed Los Angelenos, whose every chance encounter supports the film’s thesis. Where Crash focused on racism, Crossing Over examines the self-defeating flaws of American immigration policy. Unfortunately, Crossing Over also imitates Crash’s emphasis on contrived confrontations and aggressive, dickish behavior — to the point where the phony drama drowns out the film’s genuine concerns.

Max frequently takes part in sweatshop raids and rounds up illegals. He tries to keep out of the lives of illegal immigrants, but his conscience spurs him to act when he busts a young Mexican mother who has a young son at home and no reliable care. Nice as it is to see Ford in an indie drama, it’s a shame Crossing Over doesn’t give him the chance to do much beyond the standard lonely cop performance. The supporting players also struggle under the film’s heavy-handed moralizing.

Max’s Persian partner (Cliff Curtis) eagerly awaits his father’s U.S. naturalization ceremony while trying to manage his rebellious, Americanized sister. Aspiring Australian actress Claire Shepard (Alice Eve) considers an adulterous relationship with a skeevy customs attorney (Ray Liotta) to secure a work permit. His wife (Ashley Judd) wants to adopt an orphaned African girl who’s been detained in a juvenile correctional home for nearly two years in one of those horror stories of bureaucratic limbo.

Plus, there’s a devout Muslim high school girl (Towelhead’s Summer Bishil) who expresses partial sympathy for the 9/11 terrorists in a classroom presentation. An overzealous FBI agent flags the girl as a potential suicide bomber and tears her family apart. By making individual characters so hateful, Crossing Over’s “Mean People Suck” approach obscures the larger, institutional problems it theoretically wants to address. Last year’s quiet character study The Visitor elicited far more sympathy toward similar immigration issues without browbeating its audience.

Best known for directing The Cooler, Kramer lived in South Africa before moving to the United States in the 1980s. He’s clearly done his homework on the Orwellian complexity of “loss of status,” the tangles of immigration law, and the various black markets for official papers. Kramer affords himself plenty of material to explore — I haven’t even mentioned the Korean youth who runs afoul of gang pressure, or the English atheist teaching at a Hebrew school — but builds to crazily hyperbolic crime subplots with preposterous resolutions. A heart-to-heart talk about the joys of U.S. citizenship occurs, hilariously, during a lull in a convenience store shoot-out. (Crash-style movies almost always have convenience store shoot-outs.) A murder confession takes place in the audience of one of those showboaty, scat-style renditions of the national anthem, and comes across like a scene worthy of “The Simpsons.” (If only Bleeding Gums Murphy hadn’t died.)

Crossing Over is the rare movie that leaves you wanting more exposition or even statistics about the state of American immigrants — anything that would offer more practical context than Kramer’s indiscriminate button-pushing. The film never considers whether illegal immigration is truly a victimless crime and seems to endorse allowing everyone into the United States without making a case for it. The Persian family subplot hints at the complex notion that Old World customs can make a toxic combination with American values. Otherwise, Crossing Over insists that American immigration policy is the real bad guy. (Well, that and the murderers.) Crossing Over’s flaws seem to stretch for miles, but you can’t say it doesn’t care about its pet cause, damn it.

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