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The trouble with movies about addiction is that they all tend to be the same. There are only so many ways to run through the standard parabola of denial, rock-bottom, relapse and recovery before it starts to feel like déjà vu all over again. Of course, these pictures keep getting made—they’re catnip for actors, particularly during awards season. They’re also classy ways for filmmakers to wallow in depravity before the inevitable third act sanctimony kicks in, and then everybody in Hollywood politely applauds while throwing around words like “courageous.” The best movies featuring addiction (Oslo, August 31st or The Master are excellent recent examples) are about the characters and not the Problem. Flight is about the Problem. 

Denzel Washington stars as Whip Whitaker (any alliterative resemblance to Sully Sullenburger is presumably intended), a hotshot pilot for a regional Georgia airline. He’s first seen in a hungover stupor, profanely arguing on the phone with his ex-wife between swigs from one of the previous night’s half-finished beers, while a naked flight attendant cavorts around the nondescript airport hotel room. Whitaker cuts them both a couple lines of blow, and then it’s time to go to work.

Yes, it’s shocking. We’re not used to seeing movie stars like Denzel snorting rails, and there’s more debauchery in these first five minutes of Flight than in the entire 35-year career of director Robert Zemeckis, a family-friendly technical whiz who peaked with Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit before collecting a shelf full of Oscars because people thought Forrest Gump was profound. This casual squalor is indie-movie territory, and it instantly clangs against the bright colors and square compositions of Zemeckis’ slick Hollywood gloss.

Whitaker soon takes to the skies, surreptitiously pouring himself a screwdriver and even catching a quick nap in the cockpit before a fluke mechanical failure sends his aircraft spiraling into a dive. Zemeckis’ Cast Away set the gold standard for harrowing plane crashes, and Flight’s white-knuckle, supremely harrowing opening set piece seems designed to top it. With the kind of superhuman confidence one tends to find in loaded cokeheads, Captain Whitaker inverts the plane and miraculously prevents the airliner from crashing. He’s a national hero, the greatest pilot anyone has ever seen.

Only catch is that he was smashed.

The more interesting aspects of Flight are in the procedural cover-up that follows, aided by Bruce Greenwood’s honey-voiced union rep and Don Cheadle’s persnickety attorney. The less interesting parts—which unfortunately comprise the majority of this picture’s bloated 139-minute running time—strand Whitaker at his father’s farmhouse, attempting to kick booze and drugs before a federal hearing that may land him in prison. He climbs on the wagon; he falls off the wagon. He climbs on the wagon again and then guess what happens next? Rinse, wash, repeat.

The monotony becomes numbing, and I suppose it’s something of a backhanded compliment to say that Washington may be a bit too good at playing an emotionally stunted, self-pitying drunk clinging desperately to denial. A sketchily drawn courtship with Kelly Reilly’s winsome heroin addict doesn’t allow the character to open up very much, and he spends most of the picture locked away from the audience. He’s an aloof figure who self-destructs over and over again until it’s eventually time for everybody to recite “The Serenity Prayer,” so the movie can finally end.

Screenwriter John Gatins penned that recent robot-boxing abomination Real Steel, and Flight won’t seem like much of a departure if you stop to notice how strictly both movies adhere to rigid formulas. Though wildly diverse in concept and subject matter, neither film contains a moment you didn’t predict 20 minutes in advance.

After the initial crash, even Zemeckis seems to lose interest. Flight contains this restless innovator’s stodgiest camerawork. Visually it’s a lot of antiseptic sets and empty hangars with the proceedings jostled along by laughably obvious classic-rock music cues and an ersatz digital-video sheen. The movie briefly comes to life during two impeccably timed laugh-track visits from John Goodman as a motormouthed coke dealer, acting as if he’s wandered in from The Big Lebowski and temporarily shaking off the air of over-determined glumness.

But the question lingers: Would Whip Whitaker have had the cojones to attempt such a nutso, lifesaving maneuver if he hadn’t been loaded? A late-game fake-out almost makes an argument for enablers, but Flight discreetly backs away from such provocations, settling instead for easy homilies and three extra endings to remind us it’s once again time to politely applaud while throwing around words like “courageous.”

Flight

Starring Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, Melissa Leo and Kelly Reilly. Written by John Gatins. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. At Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.