Pushing Tin

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Mike Newell

REVIEWED: 05-03-99

Pushing Tin is a comedy about air-traffic controllers, a narrow cinematic genre that includes such prestige projects as Summer Rental and Modern Problems. The difference is that Pushing Tin is actually about air traffic controllers--their skills, stress, and sex lives--rather than being one of those comedies where the job is just a source for a few jokes before the wacky plot kicks in.

John Cusack plays Nick Falsone, nicknamed "The Zone" because of his ability to shuffle incoming planes without getting rattled. Billy Bob Thornton is Russell Bell, a newcomer to the hectic Jersey command center and an even smoother operator than Falsone. Both Cusack and Thornton are quite good as ultracompetitive men, unwilling to show weakness either on the job or in a free-throw contest. Even more intriguing are Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie as their wives. Blanchett, far removed from her Oscar-nominated turn in Elizabeth, sports skin-tight jeans and a Jersey accent; she gives Connie Falsone the anxious expression of a housewife with too much spare time. No one in the cast, though, can hold a candle to Jolie, whose too few scenes as the hard-drinking, elusive Mary Bell send Pushing Tin into an eccentric orbit.

The vivid performances come as no surprise, since Pushing Tin was directed by Mike Newell, whose specialty is keeping ensemble casts cruising along safely (as in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco). Although he's been less acclaimed for his visual sense, his style here isn't just appealingly uncluttered, it's actually exciting. The cliché in films about high-strung professionals is to have the hero spout unfathomable jargon while his friends stand back and nod, as if to say, "This guy's good." Newell cleverly shows us what makes these guys good by zipping inside their radar screens and showing us the planes as the controllers see them--as dropping blocks in some high-stakes game of Tetris. When the whistle blows, this hectic worldview informs the way the controllers handle their private lives, from driving a car to solving domestic problems.

As long as Pushing Tin stays near the control tower, the film is a pip, fast and funny. Then Nick takes an interest in Mary and worries that Russell might retaliate with Connie, and the film loses much of its momentum. The literal cockiness of the two male leads, so fresh at the outset, becomes little more than a premise, an excuse for hoary romantic-comedy routines.

Pushing Tin is based on a magazine article by Darcy Frey, whose typically incisive reportage provides the film with its jolting insider attitude. The screenplay is by Glen and Les Charles, the creators of Cheers, who supply plenty of snappy dialogue but seem locked in sitcom beats. The amped-up naturalism of the film's first hour gives way to contrived misunderstandings, big gestures, and catchphrases. By the third time Blanchett tells Cusack she's left him casseroles in the fridge, the joke has become a groaner. Once is a trait, twice is a quirk...and quirky comedy is lazy comedy.

There's too much original and gripping about Pushing Tin to dismiss it completely. (Heck, Jolie's 15 minutes of screen time are worth the full admission price.) But it's certainly not up to par with another "tin" movie, Barry Levinson's Tin Men, which has almost the same plot but exhibits far more nuance. Levinson's hustling salesmen followed their instincts to the end, and the director wasn't afraid to leave them with empty pockets. Newell's film resolves too much of the chaos inherent in his characters' lives. Maybe that's because he's stuck with a script by two guys who have been trained by TV to greet the closing credits with a happy face.

--Noel Murray

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Other Films by Mike Newell
Donnie Brasco

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