In their time, Glen and Les Charles ("Cheers") have penned some of TV's finest situation comedies. Their script for "Pushing Tin" smacks of a project that was likewise brainstormed with prime time in mind, then rethought when reality began to settle in.
"A comedy about stressed-out air-traffic controllers? Who's going to watch that every week, when all they do is stare at radar screens for half an hour? Pad it with some tossed-off marital drama, throw in some location shots, and we can sell it as a movie!"
The apple doesn't fall far from the tube, however, making it easy to pick out the stock character types from among "Tin's" cast of wacky co-workers as they alternately insult and nurture each other. There's Nick "The Zone" Falzone (John Cusack), a cocky but lovable hotshot who's equally adept at guiding planes through crowded airspace and shooting hoops in his suburban driveway. There's Tina Leary (Vicki Lewis), a bemuscled bodybuilder who works out with hand-weights at her station when she isn't playing good-hearted den mother to her agitated pals. And there's resident oddball Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), a fresh hire whose lack of social graces immediately puts him on everyone else's nerves. Sam Malone and Carla Tortelli, meet your new neighbor, Kramer.
The Charles brothers can turn out this kind of ensemble zaniness in their sleep, and "Pushing Tin's" many funny moments earn the film its wings as the best Must-See TV you never saw. But on-the-job hijinks do not a movie make, so we're subjected to pointless subplots about Falzone's and Bell's shaky marriages that gradually and regrettably become the story's main focus.
Ostensibly devoted to his wife, Connie (the nearly unrecognizable Cate Blanchett), Zone somehow can't help himself from bedding Bell's missus, Mary (Angelina Jolie), a cleavage-baring siren who's made available by her enigmatic husband's unexplained absences from their home. The revelation of that adultery exacerbates the already intense rivalry between the two men, but we're never given a good reason why it's taken place. Hilariously standoffish in her initial scenes, Mary wins Zone's sympathies when he spots her having an uncharacteristically tearful breakdown in the local supermarket. The explanation? She's distraught that her favorite plant has died. In TV land, this is what's called "motivation," but on the big screen, it's hardly an excuse to start hiding the sleeping pills.
Zone and Bell finally go at each other in what's set up to be a suitably slapstick payoff to the flimsy conflict. Aren't Frasier and Niles always at their funniest when they settle their differences by wrasslin'? But then the film takes yet another detour into cloudy skies, tacking on a messy 30-minute coda that can't decide if it wants to be tragically realistic, lightly romantic or spiritually uplifting. By that point, you're so airsick from the turbulent flight that you don't care. You just want the thing to land anywhere, so you can kiss the ground, go home and see what's on NBC.