When the most noticeable ones aren't the ones on Vicki Lewis, you know your film's in trouble.

THE HOLLYWOOD OBSESSION with cool keeps getting worse, whatever the movie's setting or story. The hero can be a fighter pilot, a hit man, or—as in the movie at hand—an air traffic controller; all that matters is that our hero is hip, masterful, supernaturally accomplished. (Yes, even when he's an air traffic controller.) You know those fantasies you have in the shower, in which you imagine having the perfect comeback to something that happened two days ago? The contemporary movie hero lives those fantasies.

Pushing Tin

directed by Mike Newell, starring John Cusack,

Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie

now playing at Meridian, Metro, Oaktree

The problem is that those fantasies, as rendered by today's Hollywood, are juvenile and divorced from anything resembling genuine human interaction. The movies based on them are invariably solipsistic and jejune. The latest case in point: the dubiously archetypal Pushing Tin.

The plot is twofold: In one story line, ber-controller John Cusack is threatened by newcomer Billy Bob Thornton's equal mastery of air traffic; in the other, Cusack commits adultery with Thornton's wife (Angelina Jolie), then imperils his own marriage with raving jealousy. Even though both plots involve the same people and the same kind of competitive male idiocy, they're irrelevant to each other. Either the air traffic control stuff feels like window dressing for a love rectangle, or the adultery plot feels like a contrived device to give the air traffic control stuff some kind of narrative movement. The movie hammers again and again at the idea that air traffic control demands unwavering focus and judgment. But when a whole room full of controllers drop what they're doing to engage in inane conversation or simply to watch a supposedly intense competition between John and Billy Bob, verisimilitude goes out the window. At one point, a group of grade-school kids comes through on a tour commenting that it all looks like a video game; a controller sneers and utters some rejoinder about lives on the line. But the fact is, a video game is exactly what the movie portrays their job as being: Every time they pull off some "impossible" stunt or juggle dozens of planes, they lean back in their chairs and slap each other's shoulders like they just got a high score.

The screenwriters, Glen and Les Charles, co-created Cheers, and wrote for M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. If they ever had any understanding of human behavior, writing for sitcoms has bludgeoned it out of them. Scenes are built around supposedly funny ideas whose humor comes at the expense of plausibility—for example, when a former controller who became overstressed tries to come back, everyone bets on how far he'll get before he freaks out and turns back: Will he make it out of his car? Will he get through the front door? Do even the writers find this genuinely funny? All of the characters are defined by one-dimensional quirks; a female controller, played by Vicki Lewis, is a bodybuilder. That's the extent of her character development. The only reason she exists is to allow the filmmaker to display her breasts (usually with her head cropped out of the frame).

Maybe it's not the screenwriters who are to blame; maybe some studio executives were terrified that a movie about guys who stare at blips on circular screens would be a hard sell, or maybe Cusack or Thornton got vain and threw their weight around. Maybe the director thought he could make a new Dr. Strangelove and got out of his depth. However it happened, Pushing Tin is the most insulting, contrived movie to come out of Hollywood this year. Let it crash and burn.

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