If you look back at the careers of the great screen actors and actresses, you'll notice that after they've successfully established a recognizable persona, they begin to seek ways to break free from it. It must be a bore playing only slight variations of the same role all the time, and performers worth their salt wants to show they're more than a one-trick pony.
I suspect that's one of the reasons Denzel Washington agreed to be in Robert Zemeckis' "Flight," a film that contains a lead role fraught with peril and steeped in challenging moments. That the veteran actor succeeds in portraying a substance-abusing pilot is no real surprise. The man is one of the greats of his generation, yet what is startling is not just how far he goes in executing his character's destructive behavior but how restrained he is in rendering its effects.
Whip Whitaker (Washington) is a respected veteran pilot who can fly a jumbo jet with his eyes closed. He also happens to be a functional alcoholic. It isn't uncommon for him to start the day snorting a couple of lines of blow in order to wake up from a drunken stupor gotten from a night of drinking.
This is the case the morning he's assigned to pilot a routine flight from Miami to Atlanta. However, what ensues is anything but routine. The aircraft malfunctions at 30,000 feet and begins a steep descent. It's only through Whitaker's prowess and ingenuity that he's able to land the plane in an open field, saving nearly everyone on board. However, there are six fatalities, and when a toxicology report comes back showing that the pilot had traces of alcohol and cocaine in his system the day of the flight, his character is called into question.
What follows is an intense period of investigation as the head of the pilots' union (Bruce Greenwood) and their lawyer (Don Cheadle) attempt to clear Whitaker's name, though the pilot himself refuses to do any sort of introspection regarding his behavior. As scripted by John Gatins, the film is quite accurate in the way it portrays the sort of behavior an addict engages in to survive. Whitaker's life is built upon lies constructed to ensure he's able to continue to drink and use drugs in order to get through the day. The film is unflinching in showing the sort of desperation that sets in for addicts, as well as the way their lives ultimately fall apart.
Washington is exceptional without resorting to the sort of histrionics that are often used by others in order to bring an addict to life. He eschews slurring his voice or stumbling about, instead employing a physicality that suggests Whitaker is barely able to stand under the burden he's shouldering. He conveys a weariness here that's tragic, and it's to Washington's great credit that we end up pitying his character instead of despising him. He never lets us forget that Whitaker is a tragic figure, a good talented man who is smothered by a disease he refuses to understand and is consequently helpless to combat.
It's good to have Zemeckis back dealing with flesh-and-blood beings after messing about with stop-motion features for more than a decade. He hasn't lost his touch where delivering a compelling tale with his usual visual flare is concerned.
While some may argue that the film runs a bit too long and that a subplot that finds Whitaker becoming involved with a fellow addict (Kelly Reilly) who finds the strength to help herself is less than engaging, there's no denying that Washington delivers a performance for the ages, one that may compel others to seek the help that Whitaker feels he doesn't deserve.
3 1/2 stars out of 4
Cast: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Nadine Velazquez, Tamara Tunie and Brian Geraghty.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis; produced by Laurie MacDonald, Walter Parkes, Jack Rapke and Steve Starkey; screenplay by John Gatins.
A Paramount Pictures release. 138 minutes. Rated R (drug and alcohol abuse, language, nudity and intense action.) At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
"Chasing Mavericks" rides a wave of emotion. (3 stars out of 4)
Some films simply don't get the audience they deserve, and such is the case with "Chasing Mavericks," a surprisingly engaging and ultimately moving tale based on the life of surfing prodigy Jay Moriarty, a young man who first hit the waves at age 8, reached the pinnacle of the sport at 16 and tragically died a mere six years later.
As with many films based on true stories, some obvious liberties have been taken, yet the movie's two leads are able to create a seemingly genuine bond between their characters that keeps us engaged, while the surfing footage is sure to impress even the most jaded of filmgoers.
Dealing with an alcoholic mother and finding himself the constant target of neighborhood bullies, Jay (Jonny Weston) is in need of something he can feel good about. He finds it in the person of Frosty (Gerard Butler), an independent contractor who lives down the street and surfs every chance he gets.
Stowing away on his truck early one morning, Jay finds that Frosty and three of his friends go to a secluded cove where conditions occur for a short window of time during the summer to produce waves over three stories high. These are called mavericks, and only the best can hope to survive the pounding they deliver, let alone conquer them on a board. However, Jay becomes determined to do just that, and Frosty reluctantly takes him under his wing.
The "Karate Kid" template is soon trotted out, and while Jay is not waxing on or off, he does learn how to control his breathing, conserve and build his strength and, most importantly, observe how the ocean behaves on any given day, a skill that will save his life on more than one occasion. There's really nothing special about the training sequences themselves; however, the relationship that develops between the two is.
It's obvious that Jay is in need of a father figure, and Weston does a fine job projecting this longing without ever overplaying it to the point of annoyance.
Frosty, an overgrown boy himself who is not ready to be a father to his own children let alone Jay, comes face to face with his own mortality and responsibilities in a sudden and tragic way. Butler, who is often far better than the films he finds himself in, is exceptional here. He's not afraid to project a sense of true pain or loss, and in doing so, he creates a sympathetic character whose growth seems genuine and sincere.
To be sure, there are more than a few problems with the film. Jay's troubled mother, as played by Elisabeth Shue, isn't developed enough and seems to exist as a burden and nothing more, while the film does overstay its welcome by about 15 minutes. Still, once the climactic surfing sequence plays out, it ends up being worth the wait as the footage here is spectacular and would have been even more so had it been presented in the IMAX format.
However, what makes the film special is that you wind up hoping that Jay and Frosty both get what they deserve. That we remain invested in them is a testament to the work of Weston and Gerard, who succeed in infusing a human element in this standard mentor/mentee story.
"Fun Size" more trick than treat. (2 stars out of 4)
Some projects are doomed from the start, and that certainly seems to be the case with "Fun Size," a latter-day "Adventures in Babysitting" that's essentially a cinematic coming-out party for Nickelodeon star Victoria Justice. Though not a disaster of Titanic-proportions, this is hardly the sort of send-off one would want when setting out to conquer the 'tween movie market.
Uninspired, pedestrian and just plain dull, this slight feature is better off forgotten by all who participated in its making. This should be easy, as it would have already been blighted from my memory a day after seeing it if I didn't have to wax poetically about it here.
Justice is Wren, a high school senior who is far more mature than her peers and has big plans for her life as she's set to go to an Ivy League school upon graduation.
However, her more immediate concern is keeping an eye on her weird little brother Albert (Jackson Nicoll), who hasn't spoken since the death of their father a year earlier and is obviously eating his way through his grief. Wren's original plan was to go to a party thrown by her current crush Aaron (Thomas McDonell) with her catty best friend April (Jane Levy). Problem is her mom (Chelsea Handler) has dumped Albert on her so she can go to a party of her own with her much younger and rather clueless boy-toy Keevin (Josh Pence).
Of course, the boy goes missing, and in her frantic search to find him, Wren winds up dealing with one misadventure after another, none of them really worth mentioning as they've all been rendered better in other movies.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that director Josh Schwartz can't decide on a consistent tone and is unable to render the ones he attempts in his scattershot approach with any degree of competence. Moments dealing with teen awkwardness are tepid rather than funny, scenes that are supposed to be moving are insincere and I'll be darned if I can figure out what the intent was with Johnny Knoxville who shows up as a redneck mixed martial arts fighter who ends up holding Albert for ransom.
There's no fun to be had with this premise, and the creepy vibe that's suggested shows just how far off the tracks this thing has jumped. Hopefully, Justice will survive this debacle as she has charm and presence to spare. As it is now, "Fun Size" is hardly a treat for anyone involved.
A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow him on Twitter at @CKoplinski. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .