Paul Haggis' Crash, of course, didn't spawn sprawling ensembles centered around a single social issue or violent incident (this strain of American indie cinema owes a lot to Robert Altman, naturally), but its Best Picture Oscar victory did seemingly help jump-start a wave of self-deluded imitators who seem to feel that overt emotionalism ladled over a loosely connected narrative is a surefire sign of Important Filmmaking. That's the case with Fragments, an achingly sincere slice of hooey in which those whose lives are touched by a random shooting react by acting out in different ways.
A gunman strolls into a diner in the small California town of Belmont and three minutes later, after shooting dead a handful of people, leaves a group of disparate survivors whose lives he's changed forever. Single mom and waitress Carla Davenport (Kate Beckinsale, above left) starts neglecting her infant son, and latching onto the concern of a local doctor. After losing her father, Anne Hagen (Dakota Fanning) suddenly and aggressively finds religion, which freaks out both her mother (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and friend Jimmy Jaspersen (Josh Hutcherson), the latter of whom was with her at the diner. Gambling addicted, terminally ill driving instructor Charlie Archenault (Forest Whitaker, sporting a terrible wig), meanwhile, leaves town suddenly in search of a winning streak at a nearby casino. This leaves his single daughter Kathy (Jennifer Hudson) worried and unaware of his whereabouts.
Then there's Dr. Bruce Laraby (Guy Pearce, above right), who wasn't even at the scene, but stopped by for coffee on the way to work, and unknowingly held open the door for the gunman on his way out. Bruce reacts by taking a more hands-on approach with the migraine headaches of his wife, Joan (Embeth Davidtz), slipping her drugs to induce them so that he can swoop in and effectively "save" her by playing caregiver, thereby giving him an indubitable power that he cannot always statistically achieve in his hospital emergency room.
For the most part these stories unfold in discrete fashion, though Carla crushes on Dr. Laraby, and a silent Jimmy habitually avoids grief counselor Ron Abler (Troy Garity), whose services his parents (Jackie Earle Haley and Robin Weigert) are split over. Anne also counsels Jimmy — bullies him, really, via instant messenger, in one of the movie's more cringe-inducing elements — to stay away from Ron. It's this latter mystery, as much as anything else, that serves as the plot's engine, driving it forward.
Directed by Rowan Woods (Little Fish), Fragments is preciously assured of its status as a shattered-soul drama. The performances in general bend toward the physically signifying, and Fanning's wayward, grating turn in particular is powered by faithful speechifying, and not rooted in any realistic emotion. (Through it all, it's Pearce alone who holds serve, trading in a smart, less-is-more style that makes one wish the movie ducked out and followed him alone.) Vast portions of Fragments are stillborn — everything having to do with Charlie and Kathy, for instance — and others, like the Anne-Jimmy subplot, not satisfyingly sketched. Roy Freirich's screenplay, originally titled Winged Creatures, confuses abstruseness for psychological penetration; it's like he wrote it while listening to Aimee Mann, and convinced himself that minimalist metaphor and simple parallelism (Jimmy's dad coped with the loss of his eldest son by clamming up!) would in and of themselves automatically confer significance upon what is otherwise a pretty wan narrative. Fragments is actually a more telling and appropriate title, though, because it tips one off as to the unsatisfyingly fractured nature of this story. (Peace Arch, R, 96 minutes)