What to Watch: "Air" Apparent

Directed with wit and flair by Ben Affleck, “Air” is the first bona fide crowd-pleaser of 2023. Plus pointers to films and shows new and old, in theaters and on VOD.

What to Watch: "Air" Apparent
Matt Damon and Viola Davis in “Air”

Normally when a critic urges readers to see a movie in theaters rather than wait for it to come to video on demand, it’s because of the visual scope or special effects – the wow factor. With “Air” (⭐⭐⭐1/2), it’s the performances that are the show, a gallery of talented, charismatic actors at the top of their games, clicking off each other like billiard balls. Or, to cite a better metaphor, an all-star team rushing the court, making the folks in the stands giddy with the casual authority of their moves. This is one of those films where the pleasure of watching a great cast jell becomes bigger and funnier the more people are watching.

The film’s a capitalist love story, a business thriller – a How I Made That Deal/Gizmo/Essential Pop Artifact drama told from the executive suite a la “Moneyball” and “Ford v. Ferrari” and the current AppleTV+ film “Tetris.” (Coming up – I kid you not – “Blackberry.”) Although “Air” is even dicier than those, since it’s about the merchandisers, mostly older and white, who make their profits by exploiting their connections to up-and-coming athletes, many of them young, poor, and Black. It’s the story of how Nike – in 1984 far behind rival sneaker manufacturers Converse and Adidas in sales and cultural clout – gambled everything on a little-known NBA prospect named Michael Jordan, creating a namesake shoe that was the first piece of sports paraphernalia to be welded in the public eye to an athlete’s persona. As someone says of the Air Jordan sneaker in the film, “He doesn’t wear the shoe. He is the shoe. The shoe is him.”

Written with ingratiating depth of detail by Alex Convery and directed with wit and flair by Ben Affleck, “Air” is ridiculously entertaining – the first bona fide crowd-pleaser of 2023 (and about time, too). If the movie doesn’t entirely vanquish the spectacle of middle-aged suits plotting to wring an endorsement from a gifted kid, it levels the playing field by making the suits the underdogs (and rarely dressing them in suits) and by situating the kid behind a mother who in this telling is the steeliest negotiator of them all.

Young Michael Jordan is played by Damian Young, who gets one line of dialogue and is seen entirely from the back of his head. His mother, Deloris Jordan, is played by Viola Davis, which, really, is all you need to know. By all accounts, Michael Jordan himself insisted on the casting, and Davis has stepped up with a Deloris who is warm, watchful, loving, and tough – quiet with the certainty of her son’s gift and specific in terms of one woman’s pride and individuality. It’s one of the actress’s subtlest performances, and one of her best.

At first glance, Matt Damon is doing a paunchier, seedier version of Carroll Shelby in “Ford v. Ferrari.” He plays Sonny Vaccaro, Nike’s in-house basketball scout, as an eccentric in a company of eccentrics – a man with no life other than watching grainy college basketball VHS tapes (we’re in 1984, remember) and occasionally losing all his money at the Vegas craps tables. It’s Vaccaro who spots Jordan sink a game-winning basket in a UNC Tar Heels championship game and realizes that it wasn’t just a freshman fluke – that the team has been organized around his gift. And it’s Vaccaro who gets the long-shot bee in his bonnet: Splurge all of Nike’s paltry annual endorsement budget on one untested player and build a shoe around a persona that hasn’t yet materialized.

“Air” fills its conference rooms with doubters, notably motor-mouthed Chris Tucker as Nike head of player relations Howard White and Jason Bateman as stressed-out marketing VP Rob Strasser (he gets a lovely and quite sad monologue about the life of a divorced dad). The greatest doubter is also the company’s Chief Executive Eccentric, Phil Knight, played by Affleck with the loosey-goosey brio the actor-director brings to movies where he doesn’t have to be the star. (The same hair, too: Knight’s curly red Nero coif could be cousin to Affleck’s nifty blond bowl cut in “The Last Duel.”) The movie has a lot of fun with Knight’s New Age corporate schtick – the bare feet in the office, the dopey pop-Zen parables – but next to the Armani-clad warriors of Converse and the actual ex-Nazis of Adidas, he’s a breath of fresh, patchouli-scented air.

Ben Affleck in “Air”

Matthew Maher has a plum role as a mad-scientist sneaker designer in the company’s basement, and because every sports business movie should have Chris Messina in it, the part of New York sports agent (and Jordan’s representative) Dave Falk becomes an outsize scene-stealer, weaving arias of profanity into a phone he wields as both conductor’s baton and sledgehammer. All of these performances knit together with the ease of seasoned professionals who are able to underplay dialogue so it sounds discovered on the fly yet can bank into the big speeches with a conviction that rises from character rather than billboarding it.

Damon’s big speech as Sonny comes in a climactic meeting between the desperate Nike executives and Jordan and his parents, and the moment’s both moving and startling – a glimpse into the young athlete’s future that acknowledges the hypocrisy and implicit racism of American sports culture; that says, yes, we will build you up and we will tear you down; and that illustrates this imagined passion play with clips and images from Michael Jordan’s actual career, highlights and tragedies that have yet to happen in the film but that we in the audience know are coming. The movie’s fourth wall doesn’t break so much as its spirit does, and for all of the scrappy triumphalism of “Air,” the sequence acknowledges, however briefly, a dark and unforgiving truth of our business of fame.

And then? And then the other characters literally tell Vaccaro, “Good speech,” which may be the first time I’ve ever heard a screenwriter congratulate himself in the movie. You don’t mind, though, or not much, since the deal Deloris Jordan cuts for her son a few scenes later – a profit participation then unheard of and now the norm – evens the score and nullifies the lingering odor of men making money off a kid. Or perhaps that’s just the story as we like to hear it, which “Air” does with charm, chops, humility, and an irresistible soundtrack of mid-80s pop-schlock chestnuts. It’s a feel-good fable for a culture that doesn’t know how not to win, and it’s going to be huge.

I was looking forward to reviewing “Tori and Lokita,” the new film from Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, but events conspired to keep me from screening it this week. Next week, perhaps, but the film’s expanding from NY/LA to local arthouses today, and I don’t know that the Dardennes have ever made a bad movie – with England’s Ken Loach and America’s Ramin Bahrani, they’re poets of the global underclass. You should probably go.

I did see “Showing Up” (⭐⭐⭐1/2), writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s first since 2019’s translucent “First Cow” and her fourth with actress/collaborator Michelle Williams; it opens in New York and L.A. today and goes wider next week, at which time I will attend to it. (And, yes, that is Michelle Williams.)

For TV series, provided you’re looking for more than “Succession” or “Ted Lasso,” I can point you to “Tiny Beautiful Things,” which drops all eight episodes of its premiere season on Hulu today and which fictionalizes Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 best-seller – itself a collection of previously published advice columns – into a comedy-drama about a recovering addict and chronic screw-up (Kathryn Hahn) who becomes an unlikely Dear Abby. I’m three episodes in and still not sure whether Hahn – a performer who can be intensely but charismatically irritating – will bring needed grit to the suds or whether the show will sand down her edges. So no grade – for now – but bonus points for casting Merritt Wever as Hahn’s mom in flashbacks.

More easily digestible, if you haven’t caught up with it yet (I hadn’t), is “Shrinking” (⭐⭐⭐) on AppleTV+, a comedy dedicated to the proposition that your therapist is even more of a basket case than you are and which provides a super-likable cast – Jason Segel, Jessica Williams, Lukita Maxwell, Christa Miller, and Harrison Ford, who for once can be as cranky as he wants to be – with plenty of opportunity for farce and personal growth. The show premiered in January and the final episode dropped while I was recuperating from my recent medical thing – a healing binge of post-op comfort food.

Classic find of the week: Wild Boys of the Road (1933), an uncompromising Warner Brothers Pre-Code drama from William Wellman at his “Wild Bill” toughest, about homeless teenagers and children forming their own protective community during the early days of the Depression. With a raw, nervy lead performance by Frankie Darro – he was supposed to be the next Mickey Rooney but ended up in B movies and inside the robot suit in 1956’s “Forbidden Planet” – and a rape scene that’s alarmingly frank for its time (as is the revenge killing that follows), the movie never stints in its sympathy for the dispossessed and its simmering fury at an adult society uncaring at best and predatory at worst. It’s on Turner Classics at 6 a.m. Saturday, so set your DVR or rent it for $4 on Amazon, AppleTV, or YouTube.

(Even bleaker is Wellman’s “Heroes For Sale,” made the same year as “Wild Boys” and available for now only through the streaming “WatchTCM” platform; it’s a tale of a WWI veteran’s stations of the cross through PTSD and drug addiction that wouldn’t seem out of place in 2023.)

Finally, I leave you with the trailer that dropped this week for Greta Gerwig’s upcoming “Barbie,” which promises to be the camp comedy event of the summer, a silly movie made by and for smart people, and a feature-length Mattel product placement all rolled into one. Watch it for the colors, which could clear the lingering winter crud from your brain, and for Ryan Gosling in clover as Ken. (If he wins an Oscar for this, we’re all going to hell.)

Thoughts? Don’t hesitate to weigh in.

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