A junky argues with her landlord while the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ heroin ballad “Under the Bridge” plays in the background. Then, when she shoots up, we hear a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” An alcoholic druggie purges his stash and looks longingly at wedding pictures for a marriage that eventually failed to the strains of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” A drug dealer is brought in to deliver some hangover-busting cocaine and the refreshed drunk rides the elevator down from his hotel room to a muzak version of “With a Little Help from My Friends.”
The obviousness of Flight's soundtrack is a great indication of Robert Zemeckis' film's overall triteness. This is a movie of soap opera eyes during an embrace that leads to a Dear John letter. A movie where Denzel Washington does a drunken mumble that's so put on, I wonder if he's ever actually seen a drunk person before. It's a movie of the chin-stroking moviegoer's favorite sensibility, shallow depth, in which a character needs only one and a half layers to carry a film that the masses will consider complexly satisfying.
After a terrific first half hour, in which Washington’s addict pilot (cocaine is his coffee) Whip Whitaker successfully lands a malfunctioning plane by flying it upside down at one point, saving 96 out of the 102 people on board, Flight settles into a clichéd meditation on people’s need for firm answers to, “Why?” It examines this need from legal, spiritual and personal perspectives with a giant, gag magnifying glass that would come with a Sherlock Holmes Halloween costume. Predictably, it comes up short because no answer can satisfy a tragedy or outsize a miracle.
Flight attempts to be thoughtful and indie, but it is in fact big and dumb and very Hollywood. Whip’s addiction is at the forefront of his character study and his story — any traces of drugs or alcohol found in his system (and they were) would place the effective blame for the accident on him, even if it had nothing to do with his inebriation (and the movie makes clear that it didn’t). So what we see is the doomed arc of a functional addict, who gets involved with another addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) with whom he has zero chemistry. (Addicts with no chemistry — is that irony or what?) She may be a mess but at least has impeccable timing – she ODs as his plane goes down and they bump into each other in a hospital stairway later on. She’s also trying to pull her life together while he makes a few half-hearted attempts, rejecting actual help along the way.
It’s frustrating to watch someone relapse repeatedly, as we do in Flight. On that level alone, this movie is an unpleasant experience. It made me wonder why we should care about Whip in the first place other than because he’s our protagonist and we’re implicitly commanded to care about him. In that respect, actually, Flight does approach the experience of rooting for a real addict who hasn’t yet truly resolved to be clean. In the end, you really feel the disappointment you’re being set up for.
Even more disappointing than the character is the actor playing him. Denzel Washington is playing Denzel Washington. He delivers a few monologues effectively (including two cliché-ridden speeches once the film reaches its inevitable conclusion) but telegraphs little internally, relying on props instead to fill in his character’s back story. We know he’s an alcoholic because we see him chugging handles of vodka in his car. We know he loves his job because he polishes a Cessna plane he keeps in a barn on his father’s farm he retreats to in an attempt to avoid media scrutiny while his case and toxicology reports are sorted out. He’s an alcoholic who needs to get clean because that’s what alcoholics need to do, but there’s no desperation in his performance, no real palpable misery, no guts. The boldest thing about it is his bared saggy chest and ass.
The aforementioned cocaine pick-me-up, delivered by John Goodman who’s basically playing a drug-slanging Double Rainbow guy, is played for comic relief after Whip relapses at the worst time possible. Drug addiction is funny, but it isn’t. Whip is a great man, but he’s also just a man. This movie is about complex ideas, but its serpentine portrayal of redemption is tear-jerkingly straightforward.