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Despite strong acting and offbeat characters, this comedy about air traffic controllers never gets off the ground.

"Pushing" Grins

It's oddly fitting that the new movie "Pushing Tin," set against the pressure-cooker workplace of air traffic controllers, should be a near-miss. It's also frustrating. Although it boasts strong acting and more than a few moments of hilarity, "Pushing Tin" bumps along the runway, grounded by contrived plotting and an unsatisfying ending. I was expecting more from Mike Newell, the British director of both the wistfully charming "Four Weddings and A Funeral" and the mesmerizing "Enchanted April."

Unspooling like a Leeza Gibbons' special — "Gonzo Air Traffic Controllers and The Gals Who Love Them" — "Pushing Tin" is at its best during the movie's opening moments. We are quickly assimilated into the frightening and fascinating demimonde of controllers where a single shift puts more lives in the hands of these steel-nerved controllers than a surgeon will face in his or her entire career.

The intensity of the job is magnified in the manic sanctum of the tower serving the New York City area. Known as "Tracom" (Terminal Radar Approach Control), the controllers there are responsible for maneuvering 7,000 aircraft a day in and out of 150 square miles of airspace.

Like demigods, these air traffic controllers create their legends. They live and die a thousand times a day in split-second decisions, their eyes glued to the blinking radar screens in front of them. Gallows humor abounds, and power corrupts.

In the adrenaline-pumped atmosphere of Tracom, director Newell and screenwriters Glen Charles and Les Charles introduce us to Nick Falzone (John Cusack). Known as "The Zone" to friends, Nicky weighs carefully everything he says or does. Whether he's talking down a plane in trouble or sweet-talking wife Connie (Cate Blanchett), he believes he cannot afford to be wrong.

But like all tragic heroes, pride is about to bring ol' Nicky down. Sadly, the instrument devised by the writing team for his undoing is the uninspired arrival of a rival. Like a Wild West gunslinger, Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton, playing relatively "normal" for a change) is a silent challenge to Nicky's authority. Rumors about Bell's prowess and nerves of steel swirl around Nicky until he goes slightly crazy. The competition is on.

Unfortunately, the macho one-upmanship between Falzone and Bell, which begins on the job and then quickly extends to their wives, is no different — or more enjoyable — than most escalating macho rivalries. The movie's most intriguing point — the engaging environment of the control room — gets lost as Falzone and Bell face off.

The always reliable Cusack delivers the goods as the sturdy yet quirky Falzone, a guy who appears to have it all: the respect of his peers, the admiration of his superiors, and the love of his wife and two kids. As Bell, Thornton gives his best performance to date. Reveling in the guise of this hotshot, Thornton plays him in a mesmerizing yet understated way.

Blanchett, who earned an Oscar nomination for her starring role in "Elizabeth," here does a quick 180, playing a Long Island gal who loves and supports her husband. We feel for her as she watches the man she loves become obsessed with his rival. And when the escalating rivalry includes adultery, Blanchett turns this ultimate macho contrivance into something painfully real.

Sadly, as Bell's wife, the lovely Angelina Jolie never seems more than a lost waif. Screenwriters Charles and Charles let her down woefully, never giving her much more to do than be an object of speculation and fantasy.

"Pushing Tin" suffers from a cinematic identity crisis. The film's script is wacky and offbeat, full of sharply defined characters and quirky dialogue, as befitting the men responsible for the landmark TV sitcom "Taxi." But the sitcom approach to plotting doesn't quite mesh with Newell's smart, nuanced type of filmmaking. Nowhere is this mismatching of talents more obvious than with "Pushing Tin's" sitcom-ish

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