A dozen characters in search of connection collide in screenwriter Paul Haggis' ambitious feature-directing debut. Set in Los Angeles over the course of an unseasonably cold 36 hours, this sprawling ensemble drama suggests what Robert Altman's SHORT CUTS (1993) or P.T. Anderson's MAGNOLIA (1999) would be if they'd been built around bullet points and discussion topics. That sounds like a criticism, but it isn't: Haggis, whose writing credits include MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004), raises issues of race, economics and class so thorny that most movies swaddle them in layers of distraction. Ambitious white DA Rick (Brendan Fraser) and his high-strung wife, Jean (Sandra Bullock), are carjacked by African-American friends Anthony (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and Peter (Larenz Tate); Rick worries that the incident will color his upcoming reelection campaign, while Jean vents her racial anxieties on hardworking Latino locksmith Daniel (Michael Pena). African-American TV director Cameron (Terrence Howard) and his wife, Christine (Thandie Newton), are ensnared in a humiliating encounter with LAPD officers Ryan (Matt Dillon) and Hanson (Ryan Philippe). Ryan, convinced that his aging father's illness is being exacerbated by uncaring employees hired under affirmative-action programs, takes his simmering anger out on Christine. Hanson, disgusted, finds that it's harder to get reassigned than he anticipated. African-American detective Graham (Don Cheadle), who pulled himself up out of poverty by his own efforts, is badgered by his drug-addicted mother to drop everything and find his missing younger brother. Graham and his Latina partner/girlfriend, Ria (Jennifer Esposito), bicker across a racial divide that obscures the real issues. Iranian shopkeeper Farhad (Shaun Toub) and his wife are routinely vilified as an Arabs, and against the advice of his assimilated daughter (Bahar Soomekh), Farhad seeks empowerment in a gun. Haggis' rotten cornucopia of prejudice, alienation and free-floating anxiety is tightly corseted into a formulaic dramatic structure. Elements are mirrored from story to story: Two seething wives needle their conciliatory husbands; two fathers are rescued by their daughters; two smug, privileged women are forced to reevaluate unexamined assumptions; two statues of St. Christopher travel different routes to end up in the same car. Every character is offered a chance to counter a bad decision with a good one and their destinies converge with O. Henry perfection. But rather than feel reductively schematic, the film overall seems vividly complex and provocative in the true sense of the word — it challenges viewers to reflect and discuss, rather than surrender to knee-jerk reactions.