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Pushing Tin

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 30 April 1999

pushingtin.gif (3640 bytes)   Directed by Mike Newell.

Starring John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton,
Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie,
Jake Weber, and Vicki Lewis.

Screenplay by Glen Charles and Les Charles,
based on the article "Something’s Got to Give"
by Darcy Frey.

This overlong drama tinged with comedic underpinnings is the feature script debut from brothers Glen and Les Charles, the co-creators of Cheers and heavily involved with "Taxi" and other classic television sitcoms. As good as they are in developing endearing characters with barbed mots within the 30-minute format, they sadly lack the ability to raise the fragmented trials and tribulations of marital infidelity above its maudlin air traffic controller framework. Hence, at just over two hours, Pushing Tin overshoots the runway by the equivalent of at least one of the Brothers Charles’ better tv episodes. As directed by Brit Mike Newell, it won’t win half the acclaim of his mob tale Donnie Brasco or the small ensemble comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral, citing two of his better efforts in a career speckled with modest success.

The film focuses on paranoid control freak Nick "The Zone" Falzone and his uncanny ability to dimensionalize the semi-friendly, crowded skies above the New York skyline, in much the same way the child prodigies in Searching for Bobby Fischer and Little Man Tate visualized their thoughts. The ever-talented John Cusack (Con Air, Grosse Pointe Blank) fills this role with the recklessness of an over-caffeinated hot rodder and the anxiety of looking out for Number One. His competition arrives in the form of the smothered in black leather, close-cropped cowboy Russell Bell (Sling Blade’s Billy Bob Thornton), a cool cucumber atop his Triumph Thunderbird who ruffles the office politic. His co-workers and supervisors pitch about constant rumors of his legendary zen-master antics out West, reminiscent of the "oneness of all things" imbued by David Carradine in his Kwai Chang Caine role in the old ABC series Kung Fu. Russell’s on-the-job and presumably in-the-bed demeanor threaten to turn Nick’s rating from Hertz to Avis to dust.

Along as cheer leaders for the flight/fight is the oddlot buddy-buddys that scan the adjacent radar screens at New York’s Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) center (with Toronto and adjoining areas substituting for the real thing), including nervous Nellies, amateur bodybuilders, social rejects, controller washouts, and divorced husbands with trails and tales of ex-wives longer than the backlog of air traffic on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. And the Second-Third-Fourth Wives Club have their own sorority that gets ample screen time, spinning sorrowful accounts of extra-marital collisions and teeth-grinding spouses as they drown their misfortunes in fifths. This clique includes Nick’s wife Connie (Elizabeth’s Cate Blanchett, here a middle-class queen of suds) and Russell’s voluptuous and decade-younger better half Mary (Angelina Jolie), a failed social worker who manages to look great dressed in her tight-fitting wardrobe and boozy character flaws.

The boys’ "anything you can do I can do better" bickering has them stockpiling planes on their radar scopes, oblivious to the point that it appears they are playing a video game rather than concerned for the hundreds of lives at their mercy. The squabbling overflows outside the workplace in all too predictable, even if somewhat amusing, fashion. One incident puts Nick recklessly behind the steering wheel dodging Long Island commuters at breakneck speeds as the camera pans to Russell in the passenger seat yawning and then dozing off, impervious to the game of chicken Nick is playing with himself. Another sequence has a Karaoke, Muskrat Love menage-a-trois theme. Most of the humor in the film giggles up from the continuing stress-filled situations and one-liners ("I used to bowl when I was an alcoholic"), rather than erupting from deep within your belly. That’s fine, as this is by no means promoted as a broad-based laugh-a-minute vehicle. But the film still bogs down in philandering hang-ups and temperaments pushed to the limit.

Further apprehensive breakdowns drag the film along, including an anxious, airborne moment when Nick nearly brings a plane to a disastrous end. Apparently written as a witty piece of black comedy, this close tragedy is blatantly unfunny. Stooping to a conventional clock-ticking-down bomb threat that could have easily ended the whole mess by showing who is the man and who is the mouse, Pushing Tin instead skids to an expected and implausible conclusion long after the audience started pushing the glow-in-the-dark button on their wristwatches.

At final fadeout, bets are placed on whether Nick overcomes his self-destructive burn-out and/or returns home to an empty house. I won’t reveal any secrets here, but as he nervously glides his microphone cord into the console I was concerned that all of his colleagues were gathered around looking on instead of manning their own stations. Perhaps this is a back-handed, half-assed way of pitching the terrifying sequel: Crashing Tin.

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