Sigh. These days, few movies that make it to the multiplex are actually about something. Few bother to explore ideas, big or small, reflecting modern day life in a way that enlightens and entertains. (And no, Heā€™s Just Not That Into You does not count.)

So at first blush, itā€™s tempting to applaud Crossing Over just for being brave enough to explore the complexities of the immigration debate. But while the movie deserves a nod for taking on a topic that has so far mostly eluded lawmakers in Washington, Crossing Over is, to borrow a tag from our new attorney general, essentially an exercise in cowardice. It backs down from bringing anything new and discomfiting to the discussionā€”a discussion that weā€™ve been having in earnest since Sept. 11.

The kind of treatment that Crossing Over is after has been done before, and done better, in films from Traffic to Babel to the Oscar-winning (and some say overrated) Crash.

Starring Harrison Ford as the immigration cop with a heart of gold, itā€™s got similarly interlocking story lines, spread across a wide swath of Southern California, with folks of all colors insulting each other in colorfully non-P.C. ways, just like in Crash. Except this time, everyoneā€™s crashing up against each other in the quest for the almighty green card, or even better, U.S. citizenship.

Crossing Over takes pains to expose the ways that the system fails, especially in the case of a Nigerian orphan whose mother died of AIDS. And it shows how not all ā€œillegal aliensā€ come wrapped in brown skin. Evenā€”gasp! ā€”pretty blond, English-speaking Aussie actresses have documentation problems.Ā Ā 

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But pulsing underneath Crossing Overā€™s do-gooder exterior is a cynical heart, one thatā€™s not above trotting out tired, old stereotypes (the poor single mother who flees Mexico to find a better life for her kid) and manipulating them for maximum exploitative effect. (Right before a young Muslim woman is murdered in an honor killing, the filmmakers are sure to let us see her in the altogether, going at it with her marriedā€”and non-Muslim lover.) Even the aforementioned Aussie actress, who, in her quest to get those papers and become the next Naomi Watts/Nicole Kidman, starts sleeping with the bad immigration guy (Ray Liotta). Multiple shots of her bare breasts and bottom are apparently essential for plot development, the better to demonstrate her inner angst.

Crossing Over was written and directed by Wayne Kramer (The Cooler), and it seems that he was so busy juggling competing story lines that he didnā€™t bother with such trifles as character development. The actors donā€™t play characters as much as they do archetypes: Harrison and Liotta are mirror reflections of each other, literally the good cop/bad cop. (Liotta, looking bloated and far from his pretty-boy beginnings in Goodfellas, does slime well.). Ashley Judd is the good immigration lawyer who has the misfortune of being married to Liotta. Justin Chon plays a mild-mannered Korean teen lured by evil Asian gangbangers. How do we know theyā€™re bangers? Because they listen to rap music and talk like T.I.! Ā 

Cliff Curtis, the stellar Maori actor frequently called on to play all kinds of generic brown guys, is cast as the Iranian guy so grateful to be an American citizen that he becomes an immigration agent. His love for America knows no boundsā€”in the middle of a holdup, he pauses to make a jaw-dropping speech about the wonders of his adopted country.

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And yet, for all its many flaws, for all the misogyny and the predictable plot lines, there are moments that resonate: Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe), as the singing Brit forced to rediscover his Jewish roots in order to get a work visa, turns in a nuanced and funny-sweet performance. Ford, for his part, does what he can with an underwritten role. Still, heā€™s haunted by the ghosts of blockbusters past. You halfway expect him to bust out of the immigration raid, guns blazing, saving the good undocumented worker with the child-care problem. Unfortunately not even that could have prevented this movie from underwhelming.

Teresa Wiltz is The Rootā€™s senior culture writer.