What makes someone good? What makes someone bad? Is it possible to be both, at least within the confining parameters of big studio entertainments?
Ironically, it’s the movie for kids that suggests one can more easily transcend artificial barriers between the two, as opposed to the entertainment aimed at adults, which seems to be saying that no matter how much good you do, you are always going to be defined by your failings.
Let’s start with the latter. Flight is director Robert Zemeckis’s first live action film in more than a decade, after spending most of the aughts thus far creeping families out with such motion-capture animated films as The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, which actually aren’t bad at all once you get past the terrifying proof of the Uncanny Valley theory.
Flight revolves around an intriguing premise: would your opinion of, let’s just say, Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger change if you found out that the day he performed the Miracle on the Hudson maneuver, he had had a drink before his flight took off? He didn’t, of course, but Flight seems to initially be positing the question as a parlor game of “What If?”
In Flight‘s thrilling opening act — which is, I’m compelled to note, one for the record books and easily the most galvanizing kickoff I’ve seen in any movie all year — Capt. Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) arrives for his third or fourth flight in as many days exhausted but fresh off a cocaine toot and the hair of the dog, snuck aboard in a juice container.
As the flight approaches its destination, an equipment failure sends the plane into a seemingly irreversible nosedive. Whitaker barrel rolls the plane until it’s flying upside-down. All engines fail and Whitaker manages to glide the plane into a field for as successful a crash landing as one could hope for, saving the lives of all but six of the 102 people aboard.
That’s when things get complicated. Federal investigators performing routine checks note the high blood-alcohol levels in Whitaker’s system after the crash, and suddenly he’s facing the potential for criminal charges on multiple counts of manslaughter.
Flight‘s core idea about the constrictive notions of heroism in our current media-saturated environment could’ve been the basis of an absorbing dissection. Instead, the actorly vanity of Washington and a screenwriter’s addiction to melodramatics end up grounding that premise into a still reasonably absorbing but overly familiar treatise on alcoholism. And like the doomed flight itself, Zemeckis’s showy direction, which gets the film off to a rocking start, ends up crashing into far more shallow territory. Try and count how many times Zemeckis films each highball glass, travel-size bottle of booze and refrigerator door as though each contained 151 proof Hitchcock.
In contrast to the constantly sozzled Whitaker, who is encased in self-denial, the titular anti-hero Wreck-It Ralph knows he’s technically a bad guy. The problem is that, despite his ogre features and propensity for destroying everything he touches, he doesn’t feel that way.
Disney’s attempted It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for the video game set (featuring cameos from Q*bert, Pac-Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, Bowser and tons of others) centers around the fictional video game “Fix-It Felix Jr.” A quick primer:
In classic “the dolls play while you’re asleep” style, the characters of every video game in Litwak’s Arcade come to life for real when the kids leave for the day, sometimes crossing over into other games via the electrical power strips. After a support group meeting with other video game “bad guys,” Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly, doing his best Seth Rogan) decides he’s had it with his own game, where everyone continues to ostracize him even when they’re not in the middle of actual gameplay.
His journey to other games ends up landing him in Sugar Rush, a candy-coated racing game highly reminiscent of “Super Mario Kart,” where he meets the glitchy outcast Vanellope Von Schweetz (a validly bratty Sarah Silverman, sounding as though she’s been pitched up a few steps). Vanellope has been barred from racing for as long as she can remember, but she knows in her heart that she was created to burn rhubarb.
Wreck-It Ralph‘s slightly over-caffeinated script is so “Pong” for so long, I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t see the movie’s one solitary twist coming. But the message remains simple: just because you are labeled a bad guy doesn’t mean you’re a bad guy.
That’s the kind of relativism I deem worthy of setting another quarter on the screen, even if your memory of it will likely evaporate as swiftly as it would another round of “Frogger.”