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You Must Be High

In "Pushing Tin", director Mike Newell takes on the less-than-wacky world of air-traffic controllers (with less-than-delirious results).

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Out of control: From top, John Cusack, Jerry Grayson, and Billy Bob Thornton in Tin.  

A M*A*S*H-style comedy about air-traffic controllers, Pushing Tin is not exactly the high-concept brainstorm of the year. I mean, whose bright idea was it -- given all the people in the audience already afraid of flying -- to produce a film in which our friendly skies are shown to be at the mercy of a gaggle of hypercaffeinated yahoos? Hollywood is supposed to be ruled by the marketeers these days, but clearly, if a movie like Pushing Tin can make it through the maze, the watchdogs aren't all that vigilant. Normally this kind of laxity would be cause for celebration in a standardized world, but, as it turns out, Pushing Tin barely rates faint praise.

On second thought, maybe the marketeers had a lot to do with this film after all. In every respect except its subject matter, Pushing Tin bears the telltale traces of a movie that's been run through the audience-survey grinder. The filmmakers throw in just about everything: not just M*A*S*H but heavy dollops of Top Gun along with a smattering of frat-boy humor and Zen and sit-com. The screenwriters, Glen Charles and Les Charles, are TV-sitcom pros; over the years, they've written and produced for, among many others, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and Cheers -- and M*A*S*H. Good shows all, and a lot smarter than Pushing Tin. Television comedy used to be the place where you plugged away until you got to strut your stuff in the movies. Now the reverse is often true.

The cast is a spiffy assortment of talent, mostly wasted. John Cusack, in his motormouth mode, plays the gutsiest controller at Long Island's Terminal Radar Approach Control center. Billy Bob Thornton, a new arrival to the center, is his super-cooled-out rival. He's the kind of guy who, for kicks, stands under a revving 747 and gets blown out by the wake of its turbulence. Cate Blanchett shows up as Cusack's wife, and her Long Island accent, if not her dialogue, is impeccable. Thornton's wife is played by Angelina Jolie, and her tarty, vodka-guzzling turn perks the film's flagging joke-o-meter. Jolie is a bombshell with great comic timing -- an irresistible combo.

In the right hands, the pressure-cooker lives of air-traffic cowboys would probably make for a bang-up black comedy or white-knuckler, but director Mike Newell is too straitlaced for the job. He turns a terrific, new-to-movies subject into a gagfest because he doesn't want to upset viewers with anything resembling reality. They'll probably be upset anyway, especially if they're frequent flyers. At least Pushing Tin won't be showing up as an in-flight movie -- although a friend of mine swears he once saw The Buddy Holly Story on TWA.


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