Every few years we’re reminded Tom Cruise is more than just a movie star. He’s a darn good actor, too.
Think “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Magnolia” and “Rain Man.”
That makes “American Made” another cinematic Post-It note. It’s got that Cruise razzmatazz but lets him do some subtle character work at the same time.
Only the screenplay is too focused on bashing a former President to fully invest in Cruise’s antihero. And how “American Made” abandons the character’s wife and kids is darn near criminal.
Cruise is Barry Seal, a bored TWA pilot lured into a new gig by a man who goes by “Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson). All Barry has to do is fly over some foreign territory and snap a few photos in the process.
Only Schafter is connected to the CIA, and the people below Barry’s plane can’t stop shooting at him. The cocksure pilot does as told, though, even when he’s contacted by a drug cartel hoping to leverage Barry’s flights for its own purposes.
Is Barry conflicted? Angry? Happy just to have a gig? It’s hard to say, and even harder to connect with him as a result. The screenplay can’t suss it out, even when it shows the trouble of having too many bags of tainted cash to hide.
For a while, that’s fine. The story teems with colorful moments, wry asides and gorgeous aerial footage. And Cruise is never less than engaging. It helps that the narrative grows thornier at regular intervals. New threats to Barry’s life emerge on cue. That means his wife gets another dose of, “guess what your beau is up to now.”
Barry can handle it. Can she?
Director Doug Liman of “Fair Game” fame has more on his mind that sheer entertainment. He weaves Barry’s story into America’s fight against Communism in the ’80s. So the Sandinistas and Contras get their close-ups. And Liman, whose father served as chief counsel for the Senate Iran-Contra hearings, mocks President Reagan heavily in the film’s second half.
Look at the “just say no” hypocrite dabbling in drugs from faraway lands.
DID YOU KNOW? -- Director Doug Liman shot the pilot for the hit FOX series “The O.C.”
Only some of the sharpest blows struck during “American Made” are likely false. The director himself confessed to playing oh, so fast and loose with reality. So why stop the story cold for some rigorous Reagan bashing?
Do you need to even ask from an industry licking its lips to depict Reagan as a dementia-addled punchline?
That the attacks come courtesy of Mr. Reagan-Era Maverick himself made it too irresistible, perhaps.
“American Made” is still compelling for much of its running time. Only the story stalls when Barry’s home life comes into focus. His gorgeous wife (Sarah Wright) is furious when he leaves TWA behind (and its health care perks). Later she doesn’t seem to mind helping her hubby stash all that misbegotten cash.
What happened? The screenplay shrugs in response. Fill in those blanks, and suddenly “American Made” is one of Cruise’s better movies.
That “American Made” captivates us as is remains testament to Liman’s slick camera work and his still-magnetic star.
HiT or Miss: “American Made” offers crisp comic sequences dulled by the film’s ideological upper cuts.
“BATTLE OF THE SEXES”
Did you know Billie Jean King’s 1973 tennis match against Bobby Riggs was more than just a pop culture triumph?
The event marked a turning point in gender politics, a chance for the blossoming women’s rights movement to score a huge victory. If you didn’t realize that, “Battle of the Sexes” will spell it all out for you.
Over and again.
This otherwise colorful retelling of an endlessly colorful story can’t help itself. Instead of letting the truth spread the message it does so via an incessantly woke screenplay.
Mel Brooks just reminded us political correctness is the death of comedy. It’s also an untreatable fungus on otherwise great stories.
Emma Stone is Billie Jean King, a rising star in women’s tennis at the age of 29. Only she isn’t getting her fair share of the sports’ profits. So she rebels against tennis commissioner Jack Kramer, played by a cartoonish Bill Pullman.
They should have digitally inserted a long, thin mustache he could twirl.
Billie teams with a tough-as-nails promoter (Sarah Silverman) to start a women’s only tour with more equitable purses. Every other line of dialogue tells you how unfair the situation is.
Yes, it’s that kind of storytelling. Sigh.
Fate gives Billie an unlikely ally in desperate former champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). He suggests they settle the gender wars on the tennis court, winner take all. That means she can wipe the smug smile off his chauvinist face and strike a blow for equality.
What could go wrong?
For starters, Carell’s Bobby is much more engaging than Stone’s stoic heroine. He’s a mensch, a gambling addict who adores his adult son and estranged wife (Elisabeth Shue, even more one-dimensional than Pullman, if that’s possible).
— This Day In Tennis (@ThisDayInTennis) September 20, 2017
“Battle of the Sexes” doesn’t make him a jerk, even while he’s spouting his “put women back in the kitchen” one-liners. Otherwise, the screenplay is pure TV melodrama (before “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” revolutionized the medium). Characters bump into each other in epic “Three’s Company” fashion. Supporting players make tiny speeches that could be better shared via a pregnant gesture or glance.
The “forbidden” love between Billie and a female hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) ignites some sparks but otherwise plays out in perfunctory fashion.
Then again, nearly everything here is does the same.
The story stumbles between camp and Serious Oscar Movie candidate. When Carell is on screen it occasionally balances the two modes. He’s particularly moving during scenes where he lets the shtick fade away.
You could see another movie focusing totally on him, but Social Justice Warriors would shriek in fury over that.
As for Stone, she captures King in ways you might not think possible. They look nothing alike, but give the Oscar winner some ’70s frames and a King-style ‘do and the resemblance is perfectly acceptable.
Stone is convincing on the court, giving the inevitable match its snap. It isn’t the young star’s fault that we still feel separated from her emotional world.The story stumbles between camp and Serious Oscar Movie candidateClick To Tweet
Husband and wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) stumble on a superior formula in the third act. They bring back Howard Cosell from the sports TV graveyard to call the big match.
Suddenly, the era’s sexism is deftly on display, from some of the legend’s comments (King “looks like a man”) to the clumsy way he hugs fellow commentator Rosie Casals. Actress Natalie Morales plays Rosie, digitally inserted into Cosell’s embrace.
Only screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) can’t let those moments speak for themselves. He’s got a soapbox and darned if he isn’t gonna wear it out by the end credits.
It might be woke, but it’s a narrative blunder all the same.
HiT or Miss: “Battle of the Sexes” can’t help but entertain given the vivid true story it tells. Only the finished product keeps hammering home the messages history revealed.