Matt Damon in Air


Over the past quarter-century, there have been periods of time – runs of entire years, even – in which I couldn't have fathomed writing the sentence “I wish Ben Affleck made more movies.” Yet as I was driving home from the phenomenally enjoyable Air Jordan origin story Air, which Affleck directed from a stellar Alex Convery script, that was my primary thought, and I'm not embarrassed to admit it. Well … maybe just a little. The guy still has plenty of turkeys to live down.

While we've hardly been deprived of Affleck's presence as an actor, audiences have only witnessed his work as a filmmaker on four prior occasions – and one of those occasions, 2016's crime drama Live by Night, was, for good reason, barely witnessed at all. But the other three (2007's Gone Baby Gone, 2010's The Town, and, most notably, 2012's Oscar-winning Argo) are terrific, and all four of Affleck's previous directorial offerings are examples of the sort of confidently middlebrow entertainment that has gone decidedly out of fashion at the cineplex: adult-skewing; dialogue-driven; actor-centric; sequel-resistant. Those descriptors can also be applied to Air, and they'd sit alongside a bunch of additionally earned ones, among them “narratively engrossing,” “surreptitiously moving,” and “laugh-out-loud funny.” Among current releases, A Thousand & One is more stunningly emotional and John Wick: Chapter 4 more epically grand. Yet minute for minute, I think I had more sheer fun at Affleck's and Convery's fact-based dramedy than at any other 2023 release to date. And happily, I may not be alone, as this witty, fast-moving crowd-pleaser had the nerve, this past weekend, to score north of $20-million domestic without being indebted to a franchise and without boasting anything in the way of IP. Not counting the shoes, of course.

Although the actual truth behind this “true story” from 1984 is shrouded in modern myth, the tale that Convery opts to tell focuses on Sonny Vaccarro (Matt Damon), a Nike marketing executive and basketball talent scout recruited to help the company salvage the dismal sales in its footwear division. Allotted a budget of $250,000 to snare three NBA endorsement figures, Vaccarro becomes increasingly convinced that the money should instead be spent, in full, on the up-and-coming tyro Michael Jordan, for whom he wants Nike to create a specialty shoe emblematic of the young man's gifts. As Vaccarro is routinely reminded, however, there are a few hitches to his plan, Jordan's apparent unavailability and clear preference for Adidas chiefly among them. Yet Vaccarro remains undeterred in his quest to sign the budding superstar, and the kick of the film comes from watching this pudgy, middle-aged exemplar of middle management perform his own astounding athletic feats – jumping through every hoop and leaping over every hurdle just to get an audience with Michael, to say nothing of an eventual business deal.

Ben Affleck in Air

It's easy to imagine this saga unfurling as a documentary feature – something involving a lot of talking heads and clips of Jordan's basketball prowess and a figurative ticking clock counting down the days and hours until Michael is finally required to sign with someone. And in truth, that's pretty much what we get, albeit with far more signifiers of 1984 than we would have received even in a work composed solely of legitimate 1984 footage. (Beyond the continual employment of period pop hits on the soundtrack, the montage of Air's first few minutes is like getting an intravenous injection of mid-'80s America, and in one eyebrow-raising moment later in the film, a Nike staffer is seen reading Trivial Pursuit cards at his desk.) What prevents the movie from exuding even a hint of docu-drama blandness, through, are the formidable contributions of its cast, which should really come as no surprise. As indicated by reactions to his off-screen exploits and that notorious Best Directing snub for Best Picture winner Argo, it can sometimes be difficult to discern just how much Hollywood as a collective actually likes Affleck. Yet based on the ensembles he's landed for his projects, actors clearly do, and clearly should. He keeps giving them meaty material to chew on.

This isn't necessarily the same thing as giving them three-dimensional characters to play, and if there's a significant flaw in Convery's script, it's that we aren't given much sense of the on-screen figures as individuals; it's up to the performers to fill in a lot of blanks through readings and cadence. But what readings! What cadence! Among actors of his generation, Damon has a unique talent for filling “regular guy” roles with reams of interior personality – primarily by proving shrewder and funnier than others presume he'll be – and Sonny Vaccarro is a first-rate addition to his canon. Fundamentally decent yet a bit of a mess as a grown-up (it's implied that Vaccarro does all of his shopping at a nearby 7-11), Damon's executive radiates an almost religious fervor once he realizes what his professional, perhaps life mission is destined to be, yet his heroic protagonist never stops being recognizably down-to-earth. And Air's star and his director understand that people communicate with different types of friends in suitably different ways. Vaccarro's exchanges with his longtime pal George Raveling (Marlon Wayans, in an outstanding cameo) don't sound at all like his conversations with workplace ally Howard White (a gleefully excitable Chris Tucker) or his advertising-director superior Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman, who's priceless here despite appearing almost worryingly thin).

Matt Damon and Viola Davis in Air

Plus, naturally, none of Damon's encounters evince the specific feeling we get from his time spent with Affleck, who plays Nike CEO Phil Knight with the requisite '84 trappings: Zen calm, bare feet, loud tracksuits, indefinable hair. There's so much shared history built into the Matt-and-Ben dynamic – a history that predates 1997's Good Will Hunting, and even 1992's School Ties – that their mutual ease and camaraderie have become things to treasure, and in a cinematic landscape largely bereft of romantic comedies, the stars' adoring/irritable chemistry is maybe as good as we get these days. But although Affleck comes close to stealing his own movie via Knight's laid-back authority and hilarious inability to improvise at a business meeting (even Affleck's Chuckie in GWH was smoother during his famed “Reta-a-a-ainer!” routine), two other Air castmates handily prevent him from doing so.

One of them is Chris Messina, who has long been deserving of best-in-show status. Messina's motor-mouthed, fabulously profane turn as Jordan's agent David Falk culminates in a riotously incensed telephone screed during which he spends perhaps too much time telling Vaccarro what he's going to do the man's testicles. (You can't tell if it's Vaccarro or Damon himself who's cracking up at the tirade.) The other grand larcenist, thrillingly, is Viola Davis, who portrays Michael's supremely level-headed mom Deloris Jordan. She's not in the film nearly as much as you'd hope. Yet Davis underplays so spectacularly, and leaves such devastating cascades of warmth and intelligence and bullshit-free business acumen in her wake, that you watch her scenes with a completely serene, open-mouthed smile, barely wanting to breathe for fear of breaking the delicate mood she establishes. Deloris' climactic scene, in which she quietly lays bare the stipulations to her son signing with Nike and the reasons for those stipulations, is among the greatest things Viola Davis has ever done on-screen. As I don't need to tell you, that's saying a lot.

Every once in a while, particularly when Vaccarro is en route to visiting the Jordan family in North Carolina, Affleck's usually crackerjack timing and pacing flag a little. And I had a few complaints that were really just compliments regarding things I wanted more of: more time spent on the actual design of the Air Jordan, for instance, and certainly more time spent with their eccentric creator Peter Moore (the wonderful Matthew Maher) who, we learn, passed away mere weeks before the film's production began. Yet like all of my critiques about Air, these are mere quibbles. Affleck's movie is an almost ridiculously fine time, and in Vaccarro's final pitch to the Jordans – a speech that should scoot near the top of the all-time-most-inspirational sports-flick monologues – Michael's enduring legacy is celebrated with the awed reverence it deserves, while the accompanying documentary footage wisely, cannily reminds us that, in the end, Jordan is still a man, not a god. I wish Ben Affleck, the director, made more movies. More pointedly, I wish he made more movies like this one.

Owen Wilson in Paint


Alex Convery's script for Air appeared among the 2021 titles mentioned on the Black List: an annual survey of the year's most well-regarded motion-picture screenplays that weren't yet in development at any studio. Ironically, another film boasting a previously Black List-ed screenplay (this one from 2010) premiered this past weekend in Paint, which is one of the stranger film comedies I've recently seen … and I mean that mostly as a compliment.

If you caught the trailer for this under-the-radar release, and you might easily not have, it's the one in which Owen Wilson plays Not Bob Ross – a middle-aged landscape painter (named Carl Nargle) with a white-boy 'fro who acts as host for a painfully sedate, Vermont-based PBS series. Writer/director Brit McAdams' debut isn't about much more than a longtime misogynist and professional hack facing his irrelevance, in all forms, when a speedier, less toxic painter (Ciara Renée's Ambrosia) lands the TV slot immediately following his. What makes the movie fascinating, though, is its comedic tone, which suggests a low-key blend of Wes Anderson, Christopher Guest, Errol Morris, and Napoleon Dynamite submerged in bong water. Ultimately unsatisfying though the results are, I did laugh quite a bit. It's totally understandable if you don't end up laughing at all.

Michaela Watkins and Wendi McLendon-Covey in Paint

Despite Carl Nargle being obviously based on the real-life Bob Ross, though apparently not so much that lawyers needed to get involved, I'm not sure that I believed in a single minute of Paint. While we do see senior-citizen shut-ins and depressed barflies watching the show, I didn't buy that Nargle's daily, hour-long experiment in committing the same damned mountain to canvas every single episode would merit decades-long exposure even on a glum PBS station in the northeast. I didn't buy that Nargle, in 2023, didn't know how to work voicemail or know what an Uber was. I didn't buy that the station's female employees (among them the ones played by Lucy Freyer, Lusia Strus, and the indispensable Wendi McLendon-Covey) and the program's female viewers would be so lasciviously fixated on Nargle, whose appearance and wardrobe imply that he's two seconds away from dancing “The Hustle.” (In a 2006 flashback, “The Hustle” is mood-setting background music.) I didn't buy that Nargle's ex, a fellow-employee sad sack enacted by Michaela Watkins, would still be pining for the guy 19 years after their breakup. And I absolutely didn't buy Nargle's reputation as a love-'em-and-leave-'em lothario with a bottomless libido, as Wilson's demure countenance – he never raises his voice above a whisper – and narcoleptic bearing indicate that the dude could never achieve, let alone sustain, an erection.

Yet in comedy, if the material is funny enough, logic and realism occasionally don't matter much, and there are more than enough enjoyably goofy-ass routines in McAdams' movie to make me glad I saw it. As is oftentimes the case, a vast majority of them involve Stephen Root, whose fickle station manager keeps trying to gently couch bad news in ways that make the news worse. (This guy may be the “villain” of the piece, but I, for one, was delighted when Root's obsequious mealymouth got the happy ending he didn't deserve.) A pledge-drive paint-off between Carl and Ambrosia leads to some delicious sniping and an absolutely inspired sight gag, while McAdams does his finest visual work in the scene in which Nargle hopes to keep the locals' eyes off a devastating review by stealing their newspapers, his van lurching from one lawn to the next 10 feet at a time. And through it all lies Wilson's sneakily subversive charm offensive. You can easily imagine the role being unbearable if played as a clueless blowhard in the manner of Will Ferrell's Anchorman or Talladega Nights portrayals. But Wilson, a Wes Anderson mainstay, softens the rough edges with smooth, sleepy assurance – though it does feel a bit redundant when Nargle consumes an entire pouch of resin gummies, because he isn't noticeably more high after the binge than he was before it. Paint is intensely, relentlessly dry. Thankfully, it's also much more engaging than watching actual paint dry.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie


Before I spent part of my Monday morning reading recaps and analyses of Sunday's night's episode of Succession – no spoilers, but wow!!! – I took a moment to check out the Easter weekend's box-office tallies, hoping that Air did fairly well. It did indeed. It did not, however, come close to the “well” of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which nabbed nearly $150-million domestic over three days and set all sorts of other records that I don't have much interest in recounting. I'm not sure how I feel about that. In these “post”-pandemic times, I'm grateful for anything that brings cineplex (and drive-in) crowds out in droves, and it was definitely nice to have an excuse for a movie date with my favorite eight-year-old, whom I haven't had accompany me to anything since her first, and my second, screening of the Puss in Boots sequel. Still, though … . Nearly $150 million? Really? For this?

It's not that directors Aaron Horvath's and Michael Jelenic's animated adventure comedy for Universal's Illumination division is altogether bad, and I get why little kids and video-game hounds might dig it. (My eight-year-old pal, who happens to be both, loved the movie.) This hyperactive outing that's basically a 90-minute commercial for its products is almost obscenely colorful and antic-driven, and the remedial plot is super-easy to follow – even if, paradoxically, it doesn't make a lick of sense. But speaking as an adult non-gamer, barring a gratifyingly weird excursion in which Jack Black's villainous Bowser went on a tangential Tenacious D. detour, I was sure hoping for more cleverness and laughs than I ever got. The action was perfunctory. The stakes felt low. And the cast delivered depressingly little vocal amusement, with the big names including Chris Pratt, Charlie Day, Keegan Michael-Key, Seth Rogen, Fred Armisen, and Anya Taylor-Joy – the latter of whom, sadly, was stuck with the blandest role of her screen career to date. And she starred in Playmobil: The Movie!

Yet although the finale promises otherwise, I sincerely hope that the talents behind The Super Mario Bros. Movie – and in terms of the animation, those talents are exceptional – take their inevitable riches and invest them wisely in an inevitable sequel … by which I mean setting the whole TSMBM2 in the enchanted but decidedly less colorful world of Brooklyn, where this film's initial scenes are set. I get the Wizard of Oz-y nature of the narrative, which allows Mario and Luigi to escape the drab confines of New York for the more inviting realm of the Mushroom Kingdom. But the vivid detailing of present-day, lower-middle-class Brooklyn was stunning here – even the pasta-with-mushrooms dish that Mario detests looked indescribably yummy – and the setting also resulted in the single finest visual joke in the film: a Mario-and-Luigi race over dumpsters and atop girders that was giddily reminiscent of Nintendo. “This looks like the video game,” I whispered to my young chaperone near the end of this delightful passage. She replied, “It looks exactly like it!”, and her accompanying, awe-stuck smile was as wide as I've seen it in years of movie dates. Memo to Illumination: Magical, rainbow-hued lands are all well and good. But every so often, there's no place like home.

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