The story goes that the first car crash in American history happened a century ago when two automobiles collided at an intersection somewhere in middle Americana. The punch line is that they were the only two automobiles in town. I heard this story when I was a kid; unfortunately, the inexhaustible researchers at Google weren’t able to confirm it at press time. (But, as a journalistic saying goes, some facts are too good to check anyway.) I thought about this quite possibly apocryphal tale midway through Paul Haggis’s Crash, a new L.A. story that weaves together a half dozen semi-plots about race and racism. Just like those two irresistibly attracted cars, the 12 or 15 major characters of Crash–most of them strangers to each other–just can’t stop bumping into one another, in a city of 4 million people spread over 465 square miles.

Like most L.A. stories, this movie takes place in cars. It opens, in fact, with a car accident on a dark road high on a hillside that divides a neighborhood of haves from one of have-nots. Detective Graham (Don Cheadle) bends over a shoe in the underbrush. Before the movie is out, we’ll know who owns that shoe. But first, Haggis’s script backs up 36 hours so we can retrace the footsteps of a representative microcosm of L.A. society as they slam into one another in a remarkable succession of racially-charged incidents.

In the manner of Magnolia, Short Cuts, Pulp Fiction, Mulholland Drive and L.A. Confidential–a stellar quintet of Los Angeles movies produced over the last dozen years–Crash attempts to capture the zeitgeist of a most bafflingly polyglot city, home to a dream factory and the millions who toil in its shadow. Over the day and a half of Crash‘s action, we meet an anxious district attorney and his high-strung wife, a television director and his high-strung wife, two carjackers, two pairs of cops (three good, one bad), a pair of ethnic shopkeepers and assorted others.

But if the other films mined complex psychological, political and show biz territory in often surprising ways, Haggis’s script is determinedly and single-mindedly literal. Every encounter is a racial one in which stereotypes are floated and then dutifully exploded. Still, there are several mordantly written scenes, especially a sub-Tarantino dialogue between two buttoned-down African-American men (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Larenz Tate) as they walk down a street in a tony white neighborhood. Their colloquy on the stereotyping of black men ends with said stereotyped men pulling guns and carjacking an SUV that happens to belong to the white district attorney and his wife (Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock). Later, after the couple are released unharmed, we learn that the attorney general is mainly concerned that the criminals were black: It turns out that he’s up for reelection in a tough fight that requires African-American support.

There are also compelling scenes between a mild-mannered black television director of Cosby-esque sensibilities (Terrence Howard) and his light-skinned wife (Thandie Newton). Although the central drama of the couple–that of “passing”–seems a little quaint, Howard and Newton develop their characters’ relationship with credible tension, vulnerability and love. And at work, the director comes under pressure from a white producer (Tony Danza) to keep his black actors sounding “black,” except for the ones that are supposed to be smart.

But more often in Haggis’s script, the scenes of racial and ethnic friction are just so much rote button-pushing, as when an Iranian shopkeeper (Shaun Toub) purchases a gun in a store run by a wizened redneck. When the Iranian begins to murmur to his daughter in their native tongue, the store owner explodes at him. “Go plan your jihad somewhere else,” he snarls.

But at least the presence of the Iranian gives Crash some of the post-9/11 frisson that the film’s press kit promises. Otherwise, the film mostly gives off the moldy scent of a long term lease in a drawer. The film’s creator, Paul Haggis, is now an A-list screenwriter thanks to his Oscar-nominated script for Million Dollar Baby, and according to him, he wrote this screenplay not long after being carjacked.

But even if Haggis was carjacked relatively recently, the racial posturing of Crash seems to belong to another era of Los Angeles, the one of Rodney King, Mark Fuhrman, Hugh Grant and Divine Brown, and the intersection of Florence and Normandie–in short, an overheated city riven by racial violence and waves of police corruption scandals.

Nowhere does Haggis’s rather passé treatment of racial tensions grate more thoroughly than with the subplot concerning Officer Ryan, Matt Dillon’s bad cop with the requisite Irish name. We first meet Ryan out on patrol with his fellow stereotype, earnest rookie Hanson (Ryan Phillippe). Looking for the district attorney’s stolen SUV, they spot instead another SUV with the aforementioned black television director receiving a blow job from his wife as he drives. Ryan subsequently humiliates the wealthy show biz couple, thus establishing that He Has a Problem with Black People.

That scene is fine as far as it goes, but we later learn that Ryan has been fighting with his health insurer over getting benefits for his ailing father. Arguing with the claims administrator (Loretta Devine) over the phone, he finally asks for her name. “Shaniqua Johnson,” she replies. Of course her name is Shaniqua, the disgust on Ryan’s face says. And the annoyed movie critic may think, Of course her name is Shaniqua.

All too often, Crash feels like television, and there turns out to be a good reason for it. Paul Haggis got his start writing for two of the most beloved and reviled shows of the late 1970s, The Love Boat and Diff’rent Strokes, and based on the evidence of Crash, his artistic sensibilities were thus irrevocably formed. Scene after scene of Crash is fueled by collisions of race, class and temperament, like Diff’rent Strokes without the jokes (although a couple of Crash‘s more ridiculous plot turns could prompt Arnold to say “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Haggis?”). And the influence of The Love Boat is clear too: Every episode of The Love Boat featured three or four story lines with a total of a dozen actors or so, while the boat’s other thousand passengers are reduced to window dressing. Likewise, the Los Angeles of Crash feels like it’s populated by about 30 people.

Or perhaps two people. One of the several climaxes of Crash is a howler of epic proportions. First, it requires that two characters have their second random automotive encounter in two days, as if they owned the only two automobiles in Los Angeles. And then these characters are marched through a rescue scene of the kind that we used to see on shows like CHiPs, T.J. Hooker and Baywatch, at the end of practically every episode. But Haggis seems to think he’s presenting this scene for the very first time: Will Dillon’s Officer Ryan extract Thandie Newton, whom he’d sexually violated during the previous day’s traffic stop, from her car before it blows up?

Those who’ve never watched television might find this scene suspenseful rather than ridiculous. But even this limited portion of the audience might prefer a trip down Mulholland Drive, with a little Pulp Fiction on the dash, to the conflicts and accidents of Crash.