‘Flight’: Denzel soars but film stalls | 2 stars

Fine cast must navigate through some lackluster surroundings.

10/31/2012 3:59 PM

05/16/2014 8:09 PM

For the first hour, “Flight” looks like it’s going to be the first movie to advocate drunken driving.

It doesn’t, of course, but that muddled message and some storytelling cliches prevent “Flight” from being a great film. Thank goodness Denzel Washington is there to keep it aloft.

Washington disappears behind humble Capt. Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot who saves a doomed airliner only to have his secret life as a high-functioning alcoholic scrutinized.

The plane crash serves as Whip’s “come to Jesus” moment, and he retreats to his father’s old farm to get sober. All is fine, until pilot union lawyer Hugh Lang (played by KC native Don Cheadle) confronts Whip with the post-crash toxicology results. Their meeting is one of several sublime moments in “Flight.”

Lang tries to butter up Whip at first by talking about the heroic landing. Washington smiles sheepishly, shakes his head and looks down at the table. But as the meeting goes on, he realizes his formerly boozy life is going to create some real trouble — maybe even prison time. From the look on Washington’s face, you can feel Whip’s stomach sink and his newfound willpower erode. It’s played perfectly.

But for every great moment, there’s an equal and opposing clunker. In the hospital after the crash, Whip meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly of “Sherlock Holmes”), a junkie masseuse hospitalized after an overdose. Reilly acquits herself believably in her first big role, but the character is essentially the old “hooker with a heart of gold.”

Then there’s Whip’s drug-dealing buddy Harling Mays, played by a cartoonish John Goodman, who strolls on screen to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” (“The Big Lebowski” called, and it wants its bowling shirt back … man.)

Cheadle, on the other hand, is a picture of restraint, a smooth shyster who will do anything to keep the blame off the pilot. His scenes with Denzel are the best in the film.

“Flight” is Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action filmmaking after a decade making expensive but soulless animated spectacles. And while “Flight” has its share of spectacle (the plane crash is a white-knuckler for anyone who has been on a plane in a storm), the film suffers the opposite problem of Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express,” “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol”: great performances but dull environments, dialogue and situations.

Whip’s retreat to solitude and into deeper throes of alcoholism should make you feel some empathy. Instead, it’s like spending two hours alone with a real alcoholic. On a farm.

For an addiction drama, there really are only two possible outcomes — death or redemption — so it’s clear Zemeckis isn’t looking for easy answers here. Was Whip able to land the plane because he was drunk and relaxed? Is the film saying some amount of drinking and driving could be acceptable? These questions don’t have to be answered, but they should be addressed. Otherwise they look unintentional rather than artfully ambiguous.

Similarly, when the narrative veers into questions of religion, it never comes across as authentic. When Whip visits his evangelical co-pilot in the hospital, the wife at his bedside keeps interjecting “Praise Jesus!” That scene strangely feels less believable than Whip flying an upside-down airliner at barely 1,000 feet.

Ultimately, “Flight” is a reflection of its main character: On the surface everything appears OK. But as you spend more time watching the film, the less comfortable you are with it.

What others are saying

• David Edelstein, New York:

“Despite the script’s overfamiliar beats (yes, there are 12-step meetings), Washington anatomizes Whip’s existential seesaw. He breaks Whip’s — and his own — cool into pieces, the good and the bad, the supremely potent and pathetically impotent. This is a titanic performance.”

• Todd McCarthy, the Hollywood Reporter:

“Zemeckis hasn’t lost a step during his long layoff; even though most of the settings are prosaic and even unphotogenic — hotel and hospital rooms, downscale dwellings, conference rooms — he and cinematographer Don Burgess deliver bold, well-conceived images that flatter the actors.”

• Peter Debruge, Variety

: “Few events are more visceral to experience than an airplane crash, and ‘Flight’ ranks with ‘Fearless’ and ‘Alive in the sheer intensity of its opening act.”

If you like this, try …

• “Leaving Las Vegas”:

Nicolas Cage won an Oscar for his portrayal of a doomed alcoholic.

• “The Light of Falling Stars,” by J. Robert Lennon.

Plane crash survivors try to make sense of what happened in this novel from the author of “The Funnies.”

• “Let it Bleed,” the Rolling Stones. The “Flight” soundtrack is littered with classic rock staples, including “Gimme Shelter,” the first track on this late ’60s album from Mick, Keith and the boys.

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