Ben Affleck's 'Air' is an underdog sports movie without the sports
Enormously entertaining and maybe just a little bit evil, director Ben Affleck's "Air" is all about how a humble $100 million corporation became a behemoth worth hundreds of billions. This anatomy of a celebrity endorsement is an underdog sports movie without the sports. And without the underdogs. It's the story of when Nike signed an up-and-coming rookie named Michael Jordan to an exclusive promotional contract, taking the unprecedented step of devoting their entire basketball sneaker advertising budget to a single athlete and designing a special shoe to bear his name. The Air Jordan would go on to smash all known sales records and statistics, a miracle of marketing the film treats as a triumph of the human spirit.
"Air" is, at best, morally queasy. "Moneyball" and "King Richard" signaled a shift from films honoring athletic excellence to saluting shrewd management, and now I guess we're supposed to cheer for advertising executives and CEOs. But I'd be lying if I said the movie isn't a lot of fun to watch. Men stride purposefully through their offices, firing off expertly crafted put-downs and one-liners like an Aaron Sorkin script without the misogyny. It's an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser full of snappy dialogue delivered by a crackerjack ensemble. Matt Damon stars as Sonny Vaccaro, the paunchy basketball expert and compulsive gambler in charge of Nike's sponsorship recruiting. Affleck steals the show with weird pauses and behind-the-beat line readings as Phil Knight, the company's Zen warrior and space cadet founder, while an amusingly beleaguered Jason Bateman sweats it out as the marketing middle manager caught between them.
Opening with Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" (though careful to skip the verse with the homophobic slurs), the movie is besotted with totally '80s period details. When Affleck was in town 11 years ago promoting "Argo," he told me that one of his favorite parts of making that movie was getting to relive his childhood by filling the protagonist's son's bedroom with toys from 1979. "Air" likewise lingers lovingly on Rubik's Cubes, Clara Peller's "Where's the Beef?" commercials and so many other 1984 signifiers it teeters on self-parody. Yet there's something endearing about the director's affectionate attention to pay phones and Playboy magazine racks in convenience stores. These endless insert shots of Reagan-era ephemera seem to be here simply because he loves them.
Such texture is important because there's not a lot of suspense. Anyone who's been to a shoe store or a basketball court over the past four decades already knows how well Sonny's big bet is going to pay off, so the pleasures of the film lie in its atmosphere and the zippy interactions of these terrific performers. Studio pictures have steered so far into spectacle that it's easy to forget how enjoyable it can be just to watch movie stars be ridiculously charismatic and funny with each other. Especially Damon and Affleck, who have a lifetime of experience getting up in each other's grills and the kind of relaxed, onscreen rapport that's impossible to fake.
You could easily make a whole movie that's just these two busting each other's chops. But Alex Convery's script for "Air" makes sure to give each supporting player their own showcase scene. (It's an old trick Affleck and Damon used in "Good Will Hunting" to attract actors they otherwise couldn't afford, paying them in meaty monologues instead of money.) Bateman gets the best of these — a big, crestfallen speech about how he's spent all summer pumping his fist to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," but listened to the lyrics for the first time that morning and realized it's actually a sad song about a Vietnam vet who can't find a job.
It's nice to see Chris Tucker in a movie again, even if he and Marlon Wayans feel like they were hired to distract us from the fact that this story about the world of professional basketball is otherwise awfully white. Chris Messina spits fire as Jordan's foulmouthed agent David Falk, who in real life steered his client toward the Nike deal but for dramatic purposes here is dead set against it. His wondrous arias of profanity inspire some of Damon's most delightful reaction shots, and probably singlehandedly earned the movie's R rating.
Viola Davis drops in to do exactly what you'd expect from Viola Davis, taking everybody to acting school for a couple of powerhouse scenes as Jordan's formidable mother, Deloris. She's negotiating the Nike deal on her son's behalf, because Michael isn't featured in the film at all. We catch a few glimpses of him in stock footage or silhouette, and sometimes we see the back of a stand-in's head. It's an incredibly awkward and distracting choice that I suppose saved Affleck the trouble of trying to cast a young actor who could match Michael Jordan's larger-than-life personality, but it also amplifies how little interest the movie has in the athlete and his accomplishments. (A similar technique was used to avoid showing Harvey Weinstein's face in last year's dismal docudrama "She Said." Let's not do this again.)
"Air" is the first venture from Affleck and Damon's new production company, Artists Equity. They say they're trying to change how actors and production crews are compensated on films via ownership participation, though the details are a bit mystifying to those of us unfamiliar with Hollywood math. But there is something admirably cheeky about Boston's Oscar-winning golden boys casting themselves as two brilliant businessmen who revolutionized an entire industry for their first film out of the gate. That's the kind of hometown chutzpah that gets you rooting for a movie about a business deal by a bunch of Goliaths carrying on like they're David.
Affleck and Damon's financial stake might also explain the film's cheerfully uncomplicated, triumphalist bent. Nobody's about to kill the mood by bringing up how many problems these coveted, prohibitively expensive sneakers ended up causing for low-income families. (Not to mention the overseas sweatshops and human rights abuses, but at least Bateman's character gets a throwaway line admitting that the company's labor practices bother him less than they probably should.) "Air" even ends by blasting the aforementioned Springsteen song over the delivery of Michael Jordan's famous cherry red Mercedes, while a celebratory montage informs us how spectacularly wealthy everyone became. I guess they're betting that we won't listen to the lyrics, either.
"Air" opens in theaters Wednesday, April 5.