Robert Zemeckis’ Flight is a great performance in search of a better movie.  As Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot struggling with his own substance abuse issues, Denzel Washington digs into the marrow of a character for the first time since 1992’s Malcolm X.  It’s not that Washington hasn’t excelled in the twenty years separating the two films – he rightly won an Academy Award for his Training Day villain, and he has churned out one terrific star performance after another in movies like Man on Fire, American Gangster, and Unstoppable – but you always got the sense that he didn’t have to work that hard for these results.

Not so here.  Whitaker manages, through improvisatory grace, to keep an in-flight disaster from turning into a far bigger catastrophe, except the presence of the presence of drugs and alcohol in his system at the time of the accident tarnishes his achievement, as Whitaker finds himself feinting various legal concerns in order to escape a jail sentence.

Washington immediately sells us on Whip Whitaker the schemer, but there’s something more behind his movie-star smile and good looks.  Whitaker has been on autopilot for a long time, drinking and snorting and carousing in between flights, and the crash rouses him into something resembling consciousness; with every new development, Washington peels away another of his actorly tricks until we’re left with a raw nerve, a man who has defined his existence through how fully he can sabotage it.  This is subtle, wrenching work, devoid of vanity (Washington isn’t afraid to look puffy and distraught when the camera moves in close) and illustrative of artistic depths Washington has yet to mine.  If this is the beginning of a new act for Denzel Washington, then I eagerly anticipate the years – and films – to come.

In no way does the film surrounding him live up to his performance.  I am astounded that writer John Gatins received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay; as an addiction drama, Flight covers territory that was last fresh when Billy Wilder made The Lost Weekend (so, around 1945) – years of Lifetime movies have diluted the brand, and Gatins adds little to distinguish his script.  Whitaker’s trajectory follows a painfully familiar track – his initial flame-out, the long period of denial that makes up Flight‘s midsection, and his ultimate redemption – and while Denzel makes a lot of these clichés work (a subplot involving Whitaker’s estranged wife and son plays far better on the screen than on the page, with Washington adding genuine menace to otherwise rote melodramatics), Gatins doesn’t make Washington’s job any easier, and his decision to split Flight‘s attentions between a straight character study of Whitaker (which is absorbing) and the John Grisham-esque legal drama surrounding Whitaker’s involvement in the crash (which is less than absorbing) keeps undercutting our interest.

The one element in Flight that doesn’t feel completely warmed over is the relationship between Whitaker and a fragile heroin addict (Kelly Reilly, who manages to stand toe-to-toe with Washington in the thespian department), and I credit Gatins for steering their dynamic past the standard “addicts in love” beats.  Still, that one facet doesn’t excuse Gatins’ tone-deaf treatment of Whitaker’s evangelical co-pilot (The Hurt Locker‘s Brian Geraghty), or his disastrous attempt at levity with the unexpected – and unconvincing – third-act appearance of Whitaker’s amiable drug dealer buddy (the great John Goodman).  On a script level, this feels like a first pass – one would hope Gatins could work out the kinks in later drafts.

And then there’s Robert Zemeckis.  If nothing else, I value Flight for liberating him from the world of CGI-mo-cap abortions (his Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol all seemed to double-down on how unsettling and distorted they could make the uncanny valley disconnect); his first live-action feature since 2000’s Cast Away, Flight makes good use of Zemeckis’ crisp pacing and staging, as well as his facility with actors of all stripes – everyone in this movie pops, from Washington and Reilly in the lead, to the ever-dependable supporting quartet of Goodman, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, and Melissa Leo, to even the smallest turns, which include Peter Gerety as a genially sadistic CEO and The Departed‘s James Badge Dale, whose one-scene cameo as a terminal cancer patient suggests a darkness that the film mostly ignores.  Zemeckis even gets a chance to indulge his formidable action-movie chops: the plane crash sequence that opens Flight is a mini-masterpiece of terror that bests the crash in Cast Away, and Zemeckis expertly manipulates us using a seamless mix of practical effects and digital trickery.

However, as the plane crash demonstrates, Zemeckis is a born showman, and Flight really doesn’t give him the appropriate space to exercise that muscle.  Give him tired genre material, and he invigorates it, making rote beats feel pleasantly hyperbolic and thrillingly spry (case in point: his What Lies Beneath, which turns a shameless Hitchcock rip-off into the best film that Hitch never made).  But Flight is a subdued character piece, and it needs a more grounded touch than Zemeckis can provide.  For every virtuoso flourish that works – a whip-fast camera move that synchs with Whitaker doing a line of cocaine; a wide-angle lens shot that ties together Whitaker and Nicole’s respective “crashes” without a cut – we get two or three where Zemeckis overplays his hand.

I’m talking about his insistence on dramatizing key scenes with thuddingly on-the-nose needle drops (contrasting a coked-up Whitaker with “Feelin’ Alright” blaring on the soundtrack and introducing Goodman’s drug dealer to the strains of “Sympathy for the Devil”), or his predilection for visual cues that tell the viewer – loudly – what to think and feel; the emotional climax, a showdown between Whitaker and a very tiny bottle of alcohol, would be less silly if Zemeckis didn’t frame the bottle like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  He’s trying to juice up a story that doesn’t want for drama, and that forced vigor makes Flight‘s 140 minutes more labored than they should be.

It hurts to semi-pan something like Flight because Hollywood doesn’t make many movies like it: this is a drama for adults, one that favors character and behavior over explicit violence and gratuitous sex.  We get so few of these pictures, but I’d rather get nothing over Flight‘s undercooked theatrics – do something right, or not at all.  Denzel deserves the best.

Whatever my issues with the film, I can’t carp about Paramount’s lovely Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet Digital Copy combo pack.  The HD image beautifully replicates Don Burgess’ digital cinematography, and the disc also has an immersive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

Bonus features are high in quality, if low in quantity.  We have four great featurettes: three on the making of the film (“The Origins of Flight,” “The Making of Flight,” and “Anatomy of a Plane Crash”) and some Q&A highlights with cast and crew.  Barring the inclusion of a commentary, this is pretty substantive stuff.

I have to split my Flight judgment.  Denzel Washington deserves all the accolades thrown his way – his Best Actor nomination is entirely justified.  Too bad the movie around him doesn’t do him justice.

Flight streets on February 5th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: FLIGHT Showcases Denzel Washington's Brilliant Work and Little More