Denzel Washington’s one-note character is a prisoner of a one-thought plot.
Meet Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a second-generation flyboy who spends more time in a bottle than he does asleep, but only barely. After a fateful night of boozing and bedding his unnecessarily naked stewardess Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), he casually does a line of cocaine to sober up before piloting a plane full of passengers to destinations unknown. Faster than you can say “Oscar-bait,” a tragedy occurs, and only Whip could have inverted the aircraft in a last-ditch effort to save the doomed flight before spending the next two hours of screen time deciding on whetheror not he should admit to having a drinking problem (the movie kind of runs on the same way that sentence does).
Realistic or not, this is a hard film to watch and not because of the subject matter. It’s an exercise in futility, especially because we all know how it’s going to end up. After an interesting beginning, the story slows to a crawl with scene after scene of pointless exposition, trying to paint Denzel’s Whip as a well-meaning guy who “just has a problem.” His problem IS the problem, giving audiences no one to root for or even in any way identify with. It feels like an after-school special, complete with “the more you know” lessons learned just in case it wasn’t obvious “that alcohol can be bad” after 138 minutes.
Denzel Washington is a good actor, but all he gets to do in this film is convince viewers what a worthless, unrepentant, and sneaky drunk Whip is. Even at the end, during the obligatory repentance scene naturally set at a public hearing, do we see the only other dimension of this character, but the story feels so forced by that point that the audience still won’t care. Nadine Velazquez is quite lovely in her birthday suit, but there is little explanation why she’s in the film so completely exposed other than to think, “Wow, she’s hot, what a shame.” John Goodman phones it in as Whip’s dealer, providing even more fuel for the idea that living from high-to-high is no big deal unless you’re in a plane crash and responsible for everyone on board. Kelly Reilly’s too brief appearance would have been more interesting to explore, but her character seems more like an afterthought than a mere plot device.
On paper, this must have seemed like a good idea. Maybe there was a draft or even footage that showed something other than Whip drinking himself to death and getting away with it, but for all the pedigree on-screen and behind the scenes, it doesn’t work. It’s almost suspicious how little Kelly Reilly appears in the third act, as if they lost the actress to another obligation or simply cut all of her scenes out to show more drunken Denzel shots. Whatever the point is or was, drinking to excess is bad (and you just saved the price of admission; you’re welcome).
(a half-skull recommendation out of four)