Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS.
Robert Zemeckis' Flight, the story of an airline pilot whose heroism in the cockpit is called into question after investigators discover he was intoxicated, is a rare example of the mismarketing of a film actually paying off. Paramount sold Flight primarily as a "prestige" disaster flick, even though Flight's riveting plane crash sequence lasts only eight minutes in the movie's first half-hour. How the hell do you sell the rest of the movie, a dark addiction drama about both Denzel Washington and Kelly Reilly's struggles to get clean? You just simply don't.
Nobody really enjoys addiction dramas. The only people who enjoy them are the actors who make them and get their kicks--and occasionally, an impressive paycheck--from going Method to portray junkies or alcoholics. Addiction dramas are often such a repetitive slog, due to the addict characters' repetitive habits and relapses, while the ones that are less tedious or simply better-crafted aren't really made for repeat viewing. I admire the filmmaking on display in Requiem for a Dream, but the film's third act was so harrowing and nightmarish I'm not itching to watch it again.
Leaving out Flight's addiction footage and only hinting at it in the legal drama clips was as risky a marketing move for Paramount as emphasizing the addiction angle would have been: what if the most hardcore Denzel stans--particularly black moviegoers with conservative tastes in film (read: Tyler Perry movies) who love it when Denzel plays either a positive role model or an action hero, which, by the way, are the kinds of roles where I tend to find Denzel to be at his least compelling as an actor--come to Flight to see their hero valiantly pilot an endangered plane as advertised, but they wind up being turned off by seeing him portray such a flawed and often unsympathetic boozer for the rest of the film? And then what if they leave the theater feeling had, took, hoodwinked and bamboozled, and as a result, the word-of-mouth for Flight turns sour? Yet Paramount's odd strategy somehow worked because all of Denzel's dramatic material after the badass plane crash sequence turned out to be equally captivating anyway--his subtle, gutsy and convincing performance as alcoholic airline pilot Whip Whitaker is more worthy of a Best Actor Oscar trophy than his Oscar-winning turn in Training Day--and Flight ended up becoming a critical and financial success in 2012.
After a string of often creepy-looking motion-capture fantasy movies that divided both critics and moviegoers, Flight marked the welcome return of the craftsman behind Used Cars, Back to the Future and Cast Away to grown-up filmmaking (yes, he made the Best Picture Oscar winner Forrest Gump, but the sappy and underwhelming Gump is hardly grown-up filmmaking). I haven't watched Used Cars, Zemeckis' only R-rated film until he made Flight, but I'm aware that the 1980 cult favorite is Zemeckis at his most biting and raunchy, raunchier than what the animators attempted to get away with during much of the material involving either Jessica Rabbit, Baby Herman or Betty Boop in Zemeckis' 1988 classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This mischievous side of Zemeckis from Used Cars and Roger Rabbit resurfaces in the unlikeliest of movies: Flight.
Part of what makes Flight better than the average addiction drama is the levity Zemeckis sneaks into this mostly somber piece of Denzel Oscar-bait, whether it's in the comic relief scenes where John Goodman temporarily steals the show as Harling Mays, Whip's oddly maternal drug dealer, or the opening hotel room scene where former My Name Is Earl viewers got to finally see Nadine Velazquez in all her full-frontal glory. The opening scene, which establishes Whip's alcoholism and coke habit, as well as the similar substance abuse problems of Velazquez's flight attendant character Katerina, is almost comedic in how it upends moviegoers' expectations about a typical introduction of a Denzel character and basically says, "Whip's not exactly the noble character Denzel frequently plays" (although he's played tormented alcoholics before, like in Courage Under Fire). It's even got Whip making a Bond-style pun while staring at Katerina's naked ass:
Zemeckis even sneaks in a pair of in-jokes about one of Denzel's most frequent collaborators and a past Denzel movie. I'm going to invert the following screen shot like Whip does with his plane.
CAA. Let's do lunch some time."
Hmm, I wonder why Virtuosity isn't in that stack of videos. Anyway, another element that elevates Flight above the standard addiction drama is the movie's engaging and non-didactic legal drama side, particularly in the scenes between Denzel and Don Cheadle as Whip's efficient--and quietly frustrated, especially over Whip's behavior--lawyer, which are at times as electric as the scenes between Denzel and Cheadle in Devil in a Blue Dress. In Flight, Denzel and Cheadle reverse their Devil in a Blue Dress roles as, respectively, the straight arrow and the troublemaker who has to be kept in line by the former. Flight is as close to the Denzel-as-Easy/Cheadle-as-Mouse reunion movie we'll sadly never get to see due to Devil in a Blue Dress' box-office failure during the weekend of the O.J. Simpson verdict in 1995.
Cheadle's not the only performer from a past Denzel movie who shows up during Flight. The cast also includes Bruce Greenwood from both Denzel's St. Elsewhere days and Déjà Vu, and, of course, Goodman, who played Denzel's cop partner in Fallen. Harling's theme tune during Flight is the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," yet another reference to a past Denzel movie because the tune was previously featured in Fallen.
The casting of all those performers from past Denzel movies makes Flight feel like Denzel's greatest hits with other actors--kind of like how the "anniversary" Bond movies Die Another Day and Skyfall drop constant references to character outfits or gadgets from past Bond installments--but without getting derivative about it. Even the Harling character feels like a way for Goodman to revisit past glories as well. Besides carrying echoes of the equally broadly played Kathy Bates fixer character from Primary Colors, Harling is also reminiscent of both Goodman's cowboy-ish exterminator character from 1990's Arachnophobia and his Walter Sobchak character from The Big Lebowski.
The back-and-forth between black Denzel fans regarding Flight is as fascinating as the movie itself. It's an intriguing glimpse into what black moviegoers (and non-black ones too) want out of one of their heroes, an African American movie star whose largely non-stereotypical filmography has become a more lasting and impactful one than the filmographies of previous African American movie stars like Sidney Poitier and Eddie Murphy--and where his persona is often like a middle ground between the old-fashioned poise of Poitier and the energetic iconoclasm of 48 Hrs./Trading Places-era Murphy. The aforementioned black moviegoers with conservative tastes in film were frustrated by Denzel's heel turn in Flight, but there weren't enough of them to orchestrate an anti-Flight campaign to ruin the film's box-office performance. They were exemplified most memorably by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy.
The Post writer complained about what he viewed to be Flight's glorification of white women at the expense of the film's black female characters (in the form of the white love interest played by Kelly Reilly) during a bizarre, Perd Hapley-ish column where he wrote that he expected Flight to be "an airplane version of the 2010 movie Unstoppable." His surprise over Flight turning out to be a dark character study rather than another Unstoppable is a good example of what happens when someone too easily falls for TV spots like Paramount's aforementioned disaster flick-ish spots for Flight and doesn't look beyond the surface and do a little research about the movie he or she is going to see. The column ended with Milloy criticizing Flight's "gratuitous nudity and a ridiculously profane Washington, along with an unconvincing portrayal of his extramarital love life with a white woman."
On the other side of the spectrum are black moviegoers like Slate writer Aisha Harris, who don't care for more recent--and rather interchangeable and formulaic--Denzel action movies like 2 Guns and enjoyed Flight because Denzel challenged himself in that film. They feel that Denzel's Oscar-nominated performance in Flight is a welcome break from all those blockbusters where he appears to be coasting, kind of like glum, latter-day Harrison Ford, who approaches much of his post-Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade/The Fugitive film work like a businessman rather than an artist. Blogger Jeff Winbush's post where he shuts down Milloy is a sweet defense of Flight, even though it's riddled with typos. In one terrific burn, Winbush said, "I enjoy reading Milloy when he is writing compelling stories about non-political life in Washington D.C., but he's no film critic. It's always a source of head-scratching curiosity how people can't tell the difference between an actor and the part he's playing." Then in another terrific burn, he said, "The nudity in Flight is not 'gratuitous.' It's proper for a man whose life is quite literally in a nose dive... Perhaps Milloy is so accustomed to disposable junk like Unstoppable (more like 'Unwatchable') he's forgotten what a [sic] 'R' rated movie looks like. Hint: bare breasts and bad words are often part of the proceedings."
The divide within Denzel's black audience is even reflected in the recent discussion of Flight during Wolfpop's Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period podcast. On DWITGAOATP, hosts and Denzel fans W. Kamau Bell and Kevin Avery, Bell's former roommate and old comedy writers' room war buddy, discuss a different Denzel movie each week and evaluate its "Denzelishness." (I wonder if their podcast will cover Denzel TV-movies like the 1984 anti-drunk driving courtroom drama License to Kill, which I remember watching during a driver's ed class in high school. This cheesy TV-movie that shares a title with a late '80s Timothy Dalton 007 flick is noteworthy for featuring Denzel in the supporting role of a determined prosecutor who takes on in court a drunk driver who's in as much denial about his drinking problem as Denzel's Flight character is.) Bell and Avery both appreciate Flight, but Bell likes the movie a little less than Avery does. The former Totally Biased host is from the half of Flight's audience that finds it difficult to watch a Denzel character be both often unlikable (the Denzelfishness is off the charts in this movie, even more so than the Denzelishness) and under so much pain ("It's not fun to watch him be put through the wringer like this," says Bell), in addition to all the drinking, snorting and coked-up (but off-screen) sex, whereas Avery isn't as bothered about Whip's behavior and the darker direction Denzel took in Flight. (If us Asian Americans ever get to see the emergence of an actual Asian American movie star, I wonder if we'll be having the same discussions people have about Denzel's career moves: "I wish he would do love scenes with an Asian sista..." "No, he should do more action flicks if he wants to have staying power in the international market!" "Nah, he needs to concentrate on copping that Oscar!")
For this discussion of a movie about a functional alcoholic, Bell and Avery called on a functional pothead to give his two cents: Doug Benson, the world's least lazy pothead. I like how you can tell whether or not the Doug Loves Movies and Getting Doug with High host got high right before a podcast by how slow he talks (I'm going to assume he sparked one up right before doing DWITGAOATP). I also like how you can tell when his high wears off early in the show because he starts talking faster. However, Benson doesn't spend enough time during his DWITGAOATP guest shot discussing his own Whip-like ability to accomplish many things at once while in an altered state.
But Benson's quips, along with Bell and Avery's critique of the implausibilities of the hotel room relapse sequence ("What mini-bar fridge has had that many bottles of alcohol?"), make DWITGAOATP's Flight episode a worthwhile listen, like Benson's observation that "the scariest shot that airlines would not want you to see while you're in mid-flight yourself is when Denzel has a sleep mask on in the pilot's seat" and when Benson and Bell make a few jabs at Flight's one big flaw: its on-the-nose pop song soundtrack full of existing songs about addiction or drug use, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge" to an elevator music version of the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends." That has to be the most hackneyed collection of overplayed classic rock tunes on screen since the entire run of Cold Case--or even Zemeckis' own film Gump. It's like the Spotify playlist of a baby boomer who hasn't bought any new music since 1992.
At one point in the Flight discussion, Benson echoes the opinions of so many moviegoers who, like me, have trouble telling apart all those post-Man on Fire Denzel geri-action flicks when he says, "He's not in the greatest movies. He's the greatest thing about every movie that he's in." His filmography is at a crossroads, in this age when superhero movies dominate studio output instead of non-superhero fare for adults like Flight or the recent Throwback Thursday entry Whiplash, which won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar this week for J.K. Simmons' performance. Denzel, who used to stay away from doing superhero-ish tentpole franchises and sequels, appears to have changed his tune and seems to be attempting to establish a couple of tentpole franchises of his own with both his recent Liam Neeson-ish take on the '80s cult favorite The Equalizer--an adaptation that barely resembles the thinking person's action show I remember watching between university classes in the '90s and is yet another example where Denzel is better than the movie he's in--and Equalizer director Antoine Fuqua's upcoming Magnificent Seven remake. In Flight's final scene, Whip's college student son asks his father, "Who are you?" Part of what makes that final scene intriguing is that it mirrors Denzel's recent dilemma as a movie star: "Should I do more formulaic paycheck projects like an Equalizer sequel that would get me another yacht or should I make another above-average film like Flight and continue to take risks and challenge myself artistically?" Who are you, Denzel?