Mental stability not required

New releases are very American, don't let that put you off

Whip Whitaker is flying high, literally. In his stirring, head-first performance in a movie about a nose-diving aircraft and its drug-addled pilot, Denzel Washington plays a wreck looking for a break in the clouds and, naturally, for salvation _ moral, legal, professional.

Flight
Starring Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle. Directed by Robert Zemeckis.

Whitaker's own plunge into a black pit would've been dazzling if it hadn't been so venal. Washington's Oscar-contending turn is one of the actor's peaks in his long and steadfast career, and even if Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln is a shoo-in to upset him in Sunday's Academy bash, we tip our caps to Washington.

Watch him in the cinema, because Flight is the kind of film that will never in a million years get to be shown as in-flight entertainment.

The director is Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Cast Away), and the early scene of Whitaker _ high on a dangerous cocktail of cocaine, booze and sex _ piloting his packed passenger jet through a storm is nerve-wracking. The sky clears up on his radar, and yet the silver lining is false; soon the plane comes apart at the rudder, takes a giddy plunge, and as it's about to crash Whitaker performs an aerial manoeuvreing worthy of Ripley's Believe It Or Not!. Against all odds, he lands the broken jet and saves most lives onboard.

The script by John Gatins proceeds to explore the twin obsessions of American cinema: the hero and the villain, here wrapped into one messy package. Hailed as a saviour, Whitaker also finds himself cornered as the toxic report reveals his frightening drug habit _ his penchant for flying a plane while high as a kite _ and the only way to save his neck is for the lawyer (Don Cheadle) to doctor the results and pull all strings.

Along the way, Washington makes Whitaker's nose-dive almost unbearable to watch in his cocky, self-gnawing shamelessness. One scene is enough to earn him the nomination: when Whitaker pleads with one of the surviving stewardesses to lie to the investigators in his favour. The way Washington, half coy, half disdainful, reduces Whitaker into a pulp of immoral wretchedness is pathetic, and quite amazing.

And yet as the film swings into the last corner it puts on a brake almost too suddenly: as wrenching as it is, Flight is over-determined to become a tale of self-improvement, an activity that sounds more and more like a modern hobby. Anti-heroism serves not as the end, but the means.

Washington is best when he makes Whitaker ugly _ and had he stayed that way maybe he could probably beat Mr Lincoln.

Silver Linings Playbook
Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro. Directed by David O Russell.

In this week of robust acting (see Flight, above), Silver Linings Playbook gives us four performers to relish. Bradley Cooper is cute-crazy, Jennifer Lawrence is swoon-worthy, Robert De Niro is a Philly swear-god, madder than his clinically mad son, and Jacki Weaver, as the mother, is precariously sane in her household of civilised insanity. All four are Oscar nominees in four acting categories, a pretty rare feat, and that lifts this amusing film about emotionally troubled (and good-looking) people off the usual rom-com ground.

No one will fly over the cuckoo's nest _ the mental instability here is rather like when Harry met Sally while on Prozac, and the line when hurt and heartbreak cross into psychiatric condition is the most elusive of all.

Pat (Cooper) has just been released from a head clinic following his bipolar disorder and the shock of discovering his wife's affair. Back home in Philadelphia, where he lives with his flustering, obsessive and cantankerous parents, especially his dad (De Niro), Pat entertains the delusion that when he gets better, his dear wife will come back to him. Enter Tiffany (Lawrence). Since it takes one shipwrecked sailor to save another, and since romance only comes from the direction you never look, Tiffany arrives in Pat's life carrying traumatic baggage of her own, the baggage she also hopes to relinquish through the unlikely means of a dance competition (it sounds corny, but somehow it isn't).

And here Lawrence _ I take pride in championing her since her turn in The Winter's Bone two years back _ shows her range: she plays crazy and cool, hurt and hopeful, wounded and winning, and she even spars with De Niro in a chaotic verbal match that also shows director David O Russell's sane touch to the material so full of seemingly insane characters and, at times, contrivances.

You could also say that Silver Linings Playbook is very "American" _ shrinks, anti-depressant contests, the ground-level familiarity with a Philadelphia neighbourhood, and the fact that key plot points concern not just American football, but the specific devotion to the Philadelphia Eagles and their players.

And yet, like any good story, the specifics don't feel exclusive (or annoying), but welcoming. To those who're sane or else, depressed or otherwise, this is the recommendation of the week.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Deputy Life Editor