** 1/2 Stars
(UK 1999) Rated R
John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie
Directed by Mike Newell
Writing credits: Darcy Frey (NY TIMES article), Glen Charles
A few years ago I read an article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine about the nearly-mad air traffic controllers who handle the airspace over the suburban house I live in; the one I had to wait till I was 40 to get. This article, by Darcy Frey, is now PUSHING TIN, a film that will leave you as edgy and wired as the men it portrays, without the six-figure salary to compensate.
Nick Falzone, a.k.a. "The Zone" (John Cusack) is the self-appointed best air traffic controller in the business, an air jockey who handles traffic at at New York's Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), which handles up to 7,000 flights a day into and out of the three New York City area airports. Best in the business, that is, until Russell Bell, an inscrutable import from Denver by way of Albuquerque and Phoenix, comes roaring in on his motorcycle, thus triggering a mano-a-mano game of "Mine's bigger," fueled by caffeine and liquor.
Bell, a combination of Chief Dan George and Yoda, seems to have the upper hand until Nick becomes attracted to Bell's 19-year-old sex bomb wife (Angelina Jolie, looking like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark on a particularly bad day) and falls into bed with her. This triggers mucho guilto on Nick's part, and his growing paranoia that Bell is retaliating by targeting his own wife, Connie (Cate Blanchett, once again completely and perfectly transformed, this time into a lime green chenille-wearing Long Island housewife), jeopardizes his marriage, his career, and his very sanity.
Cusack departs here for the first time since THE GRIFTERS from his trademark boyishly adorable charmer, with great success. I have been a fan of Cusack since SIXTEEN CANDLES, and this is his first role where that charmer is almost never in evidence. Nick is, quite frankly, a jerk. He's oblivious to his kid's problems, he takes his gorgeous wife for granted, jumping into bed with another controller's wife, merely because she has a chest you could read Shakespeare from and the lips of an inflatable doll -- and he instigates this completely unnecessary pissing contest with his perceived rival. I really wanted to like this character. He looks like Cusack, he sounds like Cusack, but he is, quite frankly, just not likeable. That's the kind of chops Cusack brings to this role.
He's a difficult man to steal a picture from, but Thornton, who impresses me more with every role, does it easily. Cool, laconic and unflappable in a role that at one time would have been played by Scott Glenn, he exudes both a barely-suppressed craziness and a simmering sexuality we haven't seen in him previously. He LOOKS like a guy who would stand right under a 747 as it lands.
The women fare somewhat less well because they are more broadly drawn (no pun intended). Blanchett, completely unrecognizable in Long Island big hair and contemporary dress, has a fluttery nervous tension that's palpable, particularly in a scene involving a conversation with other controllers' wives, who seem to be all of Mercedes Ruehl's old pals from MARRIED TO THE MOB (and it seems that Long Islanders are one of the last ethnic groups it's permissible to portray stereotypically).
Angelina Jolie, a vibrantly talented young actress whose breasts seem to be called on to do most of the acting for her in this film, is a woefully incongruous figure, her intelligent manner of speaking contrasting with her trashy, low-cut dress and running mascara. She's capable of looking great, but here she merely looks slutty and tired. I'm sure I wasn't the only woman in the theatre thinking, "Hell, if the gorgeous Cate Blanchett can't hold onto her guy when he's presented with a rack like this, what does that say for us merely mortal women?" And indeed, when Blanchett asks him to look her in the eye and tell her he's never cheated on her, and he can't, it's heartbreaking -- for both of them.
Director Mike Newell has an interesting pedigree, with the delightful ENCHANTED APRIL and the brooding DONNIE BRASCO to his credit. However, here he tries to trivialize the issues of adultery and reconciliation and use them as an excuse to veer off the runway into fluffy FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL territory -- a big mistake. As long as the film is in the control tower, and the rivalry between the two men deals with the crazymaking work they do, it crackles with a manic energy. But the film's wired tension carries over into its domestic dramas as well, and draws the audience into them perhaps a bit more than we'd like. A dark comedy is then turned into a muddy domestic melodrama, with a pointless A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT fishing scene, a gratuitous bomb-scare subplot (designed for the sole purpose of including an action movie cliche, in which Cusack runs in slo-mo from the maybe-to-be-blown-up tower), and a tacked-on Hollywood happy/sappy ending that is unconvincing and ultimately unsatisfying. Not even four of the best actors in the business can counteract that.
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