While watching the offbeat comedy-drama "Pushing Tin," I was involved in
the characters and all of their plights. Leaving the theater, the only
real thing in my mind was the literally flawless cast, filled to the rim
with both Academy and Golden Globe winners. I liked most of what I saw,
but it was also difficult not to acknowledge how much stronger it might
have been with just one more screenplay rewrite.
Starting off as a film set in the world of air traffic controllers at
New York's Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), the central
character, Nick Falzone (John Cusack), is at the top of his profession,
effortlessly firing out airplane directions as if it was poetry at a
near-constant rate. He has a loving wife, Connie (Cate Blanchett), who
yearns for knowledge and thus has just begun a college art class, and
two young children, one of which they have just learned has Attention
Deficit Disorder (this pointless plot development is brought up briefly
and then completely dropped). Eventually, Nick's world slowly begins to
unravel when he has a negative run-in with the mysterious
motorcycle-riding Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), and then discovers
that he has just gotten a job as an air traffic controller. While at a
barbecue get-together with friends, Nick is surprised, to say the least,
when he discovers that the 40-year-old Russell has a beautiful sexpot
20-year-old wife, Mary (Angelina Jolie). After comforting the upset Mary
at a grocery store and having dinner with her, Nick finds himself
sleeping with her, but immediately afterwards regrets it and gradually
begins to feel more and more guilty towards Connie. Meanwhile, he also
starts to grow jealous as Connie and Russell hit it off and become
buddies, fearing that they might make the same mistake that he made with
In hindsight, after seeing the film, it is clear that "Pushing Tin,"
directed by Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral"), probably seems
like a better movie than it actually is for one simple reason: the
performances from the top-notch cast are nothing short of marvelous.
While the film certainly has a memorable premise, it quickly puts its
originality on the backburner for a more conventional romance which,
honestly, is fine by me since the relationship between Cusack and
Thornton is sorely underdeveloped and flat. This subplot could have
easily been more effective, however, but it was in the thin screenplay
by Glen and Les Charles where the film failed. While all of the other
characters are brought into a three-dimensional perspective, Russell is
left noticably vague, more of an enigma than an actual participant in
the story. This obviously leads to some very major problems, considering
that what was supposed to be one of its strongest elements was in the
feud between Nick and he. Instead, Russell is seen as mostly a good guy,
albeit a poorly-written one, and their problems stem solely from the
jealousy of Nick.
As previously mentioned, faring best are certainly the performances from
a line of brilliant actors who all are able to inject unexpected life
into the people they portray (aside from Thornton, so unforgettable in
1998's "A Simple Plan," who just doesn't have anything to do here). In
what is perhaps his best role since 1989's thoughtful "teen"
comedy-drama, "Say Anything," John Cusack, like Nick, is in top form.
With his doe-eyes and puppy dog face, Cusack really hasn't aged much in
the last fifteen years, and is able to sympathetically convey Nick's
flaws and emotions, as he quickly realizes that, because of one
thoughtless night with another woman, he has put his relatively happy
marriage into serious jeopardy. Cate Blanchett, fresh off her amazing
performance in the otherwise mediocre "Elizabeth," has transformed
herself from the Brit that she is into a New Jersey housewife, complete
with one of the most unaffected and natural accents I can remember. Not
only that, but Blanchett is given the most purely human and likable
character, and handles every scene perfectly, including the heartfelt
and inevitable sequence in which she finds out Nick has cheated on her.
Finally, Angelina Jolie, snubbed of an Oscar nod for 1998's "Playing by
Heart," proves once again why she is currently one of the best and most
exciting young actresses working today. Although her character of Mary,
like Russell, is thinly written and completely disappears in the second
half, Jolie is fortunately still given a few scenes to show her stuff
and make the audience care about her.
You know, it's funny how much I cared about everyone in "Pushing Tin,"
how much I wanted them to be happy and relinquish themselves of their
many mistakes and problems. But then, it's unfortunate how subpar the
rest of the movie really is. For every intelligent and well-handled
scene, there were several that were way off the map, including pretty
much the whole last twenty minutes, with Nick and Russell going out to
an airport runway and having the force of a landing plane overhead cause
them to spin right off the ground into a sort of circular tornado motion.
Silly me; I was led to believe, by what came before this, that what I was
watching was supposed to be reality-based. With such an entertaining
array of performances, it's almost enough to marginally recommend
"Pushing Tin," but not quite. It is at the screenplay level that ultimately
leaves these fine actors without a plane to fly them home.
Special Note: In the aftermath of the Columbine High School Massacre in
Littleton, Colorado, it was fairly shocking how closely some plot points
in the film came to the tragic occurrence. Not only is there a bomb
threat scene, complete with police, SWAT teams, news reporters, and
helicoptors, but later on we find that one of the men trapped in the
building, Russell, has moved to Colorado.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman