Saturday, November 24, 2012

FLIGHT Cruises But Doesn't Soar

FLIGHT Review:

- FLIGHT marks the welcome return of director Robert Zemeckis to live-action filmmaking, after an extended foray into stop-motion animation. While many still associate Zemeckis with fantasy fare like the Back to the Future trilogy, Flight is one of the more down-to-earth, grittier, darker stories that the director has ever worked on. And yet, there's a familiar directorial touch present in this one - a retro stylistic flair for the melodramatic - an old-school sort of tone that makes FLIGHT feel like a bit of a throwback to the old days when personal, human dramas peppered the multiplex. This makes Flight thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly cinematic, but also a bit heavy-handed and unsubtle. In lesser hands, the film could have proved grating and cheesy to the point of being off-putting. But Zemeckis infuses the film with just enough humor - and just enough genuinely great character moments - to make the movie, mostly, work. And Denzel Washington anchors the movie, delivering a great, memorable performance that, again, elevates the film beyond what it might have been otherwise.

Denzel plays "Whip" Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot who's also a high-functioning alcoholic and drug abuser. Whip has serious vices, but in typical Denzel fashion, he uses his charm and alpha-male charisma to convince people that he's in command of his life and is doing just fine, thanks. Whip has a magnetic personality, and manages to hide his demons from most of his friends and colleagues. His ex-wife and teenage son know the extent of his issues, and of his well-concealed dark side - but few others are fully aware. Not only that, but Whip is one of the best and most naturally-gifted pilots around - an experienced and well-respected veteran of his profession. Both aspects of Whip's life come crashing against one another, however, during a perilous commercial flight in which a severe storm and some faulty engineering combine to create a nightmarish scenario. Whip's plane begins hurtling towards the ground, and only Whip's incredible flight instincts and piloting skill save the day - as Whip engineers a miraculous landing. Casualties are minimal, and Whip is hailed as a hero by the press. But one outstanding issue threatens to fell the newly-crowned saint - the revelation that Whip was drunk while flying the plane. And so begins Whip's battle with the press, with his colleagues, and with his own ongoing struggle with his demons in a bottle.

FLIGHT is an unusual movie in that its big, showpiece scene is towards the beginning of the film. And indeed, the big plane-crash scene is breathtaking - a show-off scene where Zemeckis establishes that, yep, he's still got it, and can still film the hell out of a big, balls-to-the-wall action set piece - creating a white-knuckle sense of chaos and intensity. From there on in, the film becomes a much smaller-scale, more intimate sort of character study - but no less emotionally weighty. We watch as Whip convalesces in the hospital, where he kicks off a relationship with a woman who is a fellow troubled soul. We see him return to his family farm for some soul-searching. Ultimately, we see him stand trial for his mistakes.

Washington's performance as Whip is very, very good. It's a perfectly-cast role, because Washington is one of the few who could make us (mostly) root for Whip despite all of his flaws, all of his lies, and all of his manipulations of others. There are many classic Denzel-isms on display here - and yes, numerous moments of what you might call overacting. But that's the kind of movie this is - a melodrama where everything is played very big. Luckily, Denzel excels at that sort of thing, so he's really entertaining here, especially when he's in full-on self-destruction mode. John Goodman is probably the other big delight of the movie, hilariously over-the-top as Whip's drug-supplier, the ponytailed, flamboyantly-vulgar Harling Mays. Other actors in the film do a nice job, but play things much straighter - reliable guys like Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle circle in Washington's orbit. Meanwhile, Kelly Reilly is excellent as the damaged love-interest, Nicole, who tries to set Whip on a similar path to recovery as she herself has found.

Flight is consistently enjoyable - thanks in large part to the great performances from its stellar cast, particularly Wasington - but it's rarely awesome. The truth is, the story here just isn't as compelling as I'd hoped it might be. We don't get a lot of back-story on Whip, and so the roots of his drug and drinking problems all feel a bit nebulous. And the structure of the movie itself presents a sort of Catch 22, in that the movie most comes to life when Whip is at his worst. The movie feels most fun when Whip is acting crazy due to being drunk or high, and so there's a strange effect where you don't quite root for him to sober up as much as is probably intended. Ultimately, the story of the crash is a bit convoluted, and so the parts of the film that are about the investigation into the circumstances of that fateful flight are its least-interesting bits. Because the whole plane crash thing turns out not to be the real story of the film at all - and we never know, exactly, to what extent Whip's drinking was a factor in what happened. The real drama of the movie is Whip's self-deception, and whether or not he'll come clean to himself about his issues. I guess my point is: all of the *plot* and the backstory of FLIGHT are not as interesting as the central human drama, and in some ways, the plot almost undermines the real story of the film. The movie might have been better served with a plotline that better underlined Whip's story and character arc. As is, the movie's most impactful moments are in its first act, and so you can't help but feel some sense of anticlimax over the course of the film from that point on. Despite Washington giving it his all, there is a bit of that TV movie-of-the-week feel to everything after the big plane crash.

Ultimately, FLIGHT is worth checking out, even if only to see a quintessential Denzel Washington performance. But for a movie that likely aspires for greatness, this is a film with some great moments, but one that ends up feeling pretty middle-of-the-road. Maybe even a bit dated in its execution. Perhaps this is just Zemeckis cracking his knuckles and warming up for something a bit more ambitious. Whatever the case, Flight is a pretty decent film, but not in that upper echelon of best-of-the-year candidates that it strives for.

My Grade: B

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