A genteel Crash for concerned liberals, Anthony Minghella’s ambitious new movie, Breaking and Entering, taps into contemporary urban panic, a state of mind in which the hopeful 20th-century pieties of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” have thinned into a gossamer skin stretched tight over the gathering tensions of the postindustrial city, and where class inequalities — especially in Western Europe, where the movie is set — have been rapidly overlaid by those of race and religion. I liked Crash a good deal, but in principle I like even better the idea of a film that enters the fray without yelling or waving handguns in our faces. Bold in scope and aptly mimicking the loose structures of kinship, friendship and work most city dwellers make do with these days, Breaking and Entering nonetheless plays out too quiet and too loose for its own good.

The movie is pointedly set around a cavernous, newly excavated building site waiting to be filled up with vital approaches to urban regeneration in the heart of London’s King’s Cross, a transient neighborhood pocked with dingy projects and gentrified townhouses. Minghella means to lace together the jittery residents of these two areas through different forms of theft — material, sexual and emotional. When the offices of radical landscape architect Will Francis (Jude Law), who works in King’s Cross but lives in far tonier North London, are repeatedly burgled by athletic teenagers, Will follows one of them, a Bosnian refugee named Miro (Rafi Gavron), back to the apartment he shares with his mother, Amira (Juliette Binoche). Before long, Will too becomes a thief, seeking relief from the rigors of his relationship with his live-in Swedish girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn) and her mildly autistic daughter (Poppy Rogers) in an affair with Amira that implodes when she finds out that Will is using her, at least in part, to get to her son. Amira in turn steals something from Will, and so the conflict winds itself up into action, reaction, counterreaction, until a less-than-mighty reckoning brings everyone together in crisis management.

Breaking and Entering is Minghella’s first original script since his charming feature debut, Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991), and though the dialogue is never less than smart and literate, it meanders hither and yon and tapers off into dead ends as this most intimate of directors struggles to contain the multiple plots and swollen ensembles — linked more by happenstance than logic — that have become standard in contemporary urban drama. Vera Farmiga and Ray Winstone, two fine actors, are criminally wasted as a Russian prostitute and a cop with no more reason for being than to provide light relief. The three leads are perversely cast and underdeveloped. Binoche is radiant as ever, but Amira is so minimally conceived that the actress’ skillful Bosnian accent overwhelms the character and we’re left thinking, hey, there’s Juliette Binoche, talking funny. Though there are only six years between Penn and Law, she’s mature and elusive, while he reverts to his default petulant naughtiness. Which makes Will seem more like a wayward son than a grown man struggling to reconcile his idealistic work with a family life hollowed out by obligation.

Minghella invites us to buy all these characters as fundamentally good folks whose worst flaw is that they can’t or won’t listen to each other — a bourgeois liberal sentiment that fails to fully address the roots of the nervous reactivity that defines life in the multiracial modern city. For all its neat parallels between the two families with their gymnastically gifted but troubled teenagers, Breaking and Entering’s most egregious flub is the way it hedges its bets. Much is made of the fact that though Miro belongs to a Bosnian-Serb gang of robbers specializing in high-tech equipment, he’s a Muslim on his mother’s side. But by making him a white Muslim, Minghella sidles up to, then backs away from the fact that it’s not religion per se but Middle Eastern dress and skin color that ratchet up our skittish public encounters with the Other since 9/11. The recent tasering of a student of visible Middle Eastern origin by an overzealous cop in the UCLA library, its chaos captured on somebody’s cell phone and posted on YouTube, might have been a scene out of Crash. Say what you like about that movie, which has few defenders among critics, it walks right up to that little heart of darkness and shakes it by the hand. Breaking and Entering sighs and whimpers and waffles until, far from losing myself in this timid movie, I found myself wishing it would speak up.

BREAKING AND ENTERING | Written and directed by ANTHONY MINGHELLA | Produced by SYDNEY POLLACK, MINGHELLA and TIMOTHY BRICKNELL | Released by MGM and the Weinstein Co. | Monica 4-Plex

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