Friday, January 25, 2013

Review: Flight

My guess here is that Denzel Washington’s Flight will never be a part of any airline’s In Flight Entertainment package.  Not because the movie is terrible (it’s merits we will debate later), but because of the fantastically implausible crash scene that sets the film’s wheels in motion.  As for the substance of the film, it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing - a dark character piece initially disguised (or marketed) as lighter fare wrapped around a large-scale action sequence.  And because of this, most of the film feels like a letdown for the typical viewer - as it is no easy thing to adjust one’s expectations mid-film. 

The plot of the film seems to be about Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a pilot who miraculously lands a plane and must deal with the fallout from the event.  This includes both a federal investigation and a rabid media frenzy.  And in many ways that is precisely what this film is about.  But more than that, Flight is truely a narrative of addiction and one man’s struggles with chemical dependency as it details the trail of lies, fractured relationships, and abusive behavior born from this struggle.

With Robert Zemeckis directing, Denzel Washington starring, and Don Cheadle in a support capacity, this movie should have been a slam dunk.  And I am sure that when they put this together, they had visions of Oscars dancing in their heads.  Unfortunately, the pieces don’t really come together the way they should.  It starts with the expectations.  The pace starts quick with the set up and the crash but things come to a screeching halt, and this is strictly by design.  This film is meant to be a slow burn, a character sketch that peels away the layers of lies and addiction.  While the pieces are in place to make this work, the issue with this film is that the struggle becomes overly internalized and that is something very difficult to capture on film.  It takes a nuanced performance to pull that off and as great a career as Denzel Washington has had, nuance is not exactly his forte.  

It is widely known in Hollywood circles that Denzel Washington is extremely difficult to work with – on par with the likes of Russell Crowe, Tommy Lee Jones, and Eddie Murphy.  So asking him to play a cantankerous narcissist is no huge stretch.  But when you look back at his resume, his best work involves his portraying individuals with larger than life personalities (Malcom X, Remember the Titans, Training Day).  A small character piece is something I would argue that he has not had to pull off, and with this film we find out why.  The role of Whip Whitaker requires something different than Washington’s typical delivery, and because of that, this movie fails to be as incisive as writer John Gatins probably intended it to be.

As for the supporting cast, they turn in a mixed bag of performances.  Don Cheadle is solid as the criminal attorney for the defense, delivering the morally ambiguous cool typically attributed to lawyers on screen.   Kelly Reilly, as a struggling addict, and Bruce Greenwood, Nadine Velazquez, and Tamara Tunie - as employees of the airline – are satisfactory.  None of the four truly stands out, but each hits the right notes when necessary.  Bringing up the rear is John Goodman as drug dealer Harling Mays.  Goodman is over the top and lacks any credibility whatsoever.  As good as he was in Argo, his performance in Flight is the polar opposite.

As I look back at this movie, I don’t think it is terrible.  There’s just nothing in this movie that I haven’t seen done already in other films and with greater execution.  Entertainment value can be found in Flight so long as you go in with the proper expectations – that it’s not a briskly paced movie, no matter what the trailer or the first twenty minutes would have you believe.  It’s a chemical dependency film, plain and simple and a slowly paced one at that. I would put it on your rental queue and save it for a slow midweek night.  And if you’re really just looking for a good Denzel Washington movie to watch, I would suggest looking elsewhere.  There are so many other films that better illustrate his acting talents.

Standout Performance: Don Cheadle.  It’s not his best work, but it is still head and shoulders above the rest of his cast mates.


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