The San Juan Daily Star
‘Air’ review: The game changers
By Manohla Dargis
It’s ridiculous how entertaining “Air” is given that it’s about shoes, even if it works overtime to persuade you that it’s also about other, nobler truths, too. Mind you, the pair that Nike presented to Michael Jordan in a 1984 meeting were custom. The company wanted badly to sign Jordan to an endorsement deal, so it created black-and-red high tops with a white midsole and a multimillion-dollar sweetener. Jordan may have preferred Adidas, but he soon laced up for Nike, changing footwear, sports stardom and athletic marketing forever.
Directed by Ben Affleck, the frothily amusing and very eager-to-please “Air” tells the oft-told tale of how Nike signed Jordan to a contract that made each astonishingly rich. Yet while the man and the money are inevitably central to this deeply American story, both remain strategically obscured. Jordan (Damian Young) is shown only in teasing partial view, his face concealed (you see the real Jordan in archival images), an initially distracting decision that grows less gimmicky and seems more natural as the story shifts focus toward virtuous, less fungible human values like love, genius, grit, perseverance, righteousness and faith.
The movie’s principal true believer is Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon). (Like most of the main characters, Vaccaro is based on, and named after, a real person, though the actual Sonny is far juicier than he is here.) A vision in beige with a beeper attached to his belt, his belly spilling over that same belt, Sonny is a familiar, cartoonish sad-sack, a figure right out of Mike Judge’s “Office Space.” He’s divorced and still unattached, and his workaholic habits don’t bode well for romance. He routinely buys his nightly dinner at the local convenience store, making small talk with the clerk, then eats alone while staring at the TV or, in his case, side-by-side sets.
The story heats up when Sonny and his colleagues at Nike start looking at the latest NBA draftees to sign. Nike doesn’t want to spend much, so most of its execs are scouring the lower picks. But Sonny has a gift for spotting talent, and he’s aiming high: Jordan, the 21-year-old who’s left college early and whose moves he studies on smeary tape. Not everyone can read the future or see talent like Sonny, and much of the movie involves his wooing of two notably different dealmakers and breakers: Phil Knight (an amusing Affleck), Nike’s preening co-founder and chief executive, and Jordan’s mother, Deloris (a sensational Viola Davis).
Written by Alex Convery, “Air” nicely hits the sweet spot between light comedy and lighter drama that’s tough to get right. It’s funny, but its generous laughs tend to be low-key and are more often dependent on their delivery than on the actual writing. Damon is crucial to selling the humor. He’s packed on weight for the role, and he gives the character a stolid, tamped-down physicality, but he also lets you see the eddies of anger and frustration raging under the character’s skin. Sonny is put-upon and dejected, but he’s quick witted and doesn’t suffer fools (or Knight), and his patience has already been worn perilously thin when the story opens.
Waiting for Sonny to explode helps build the comic tension; watching him try to sign Jordan creates the relatively less punchy drama. Some of the juiciest laughs come from Sonny’s interactions with the gnomic Knight, a showboating supporting role that Affleck embraces with a sly, vacant deadpan and tragically unhip styling. Affleck knows how to steal scenes, and he pilfers a few, but he’s a very good and generous director of actors. He’s loaded up “Air” with terrific supporting players, including Jason Bateman and Chris Tucker, who, as Nike suits, add distinct flavor and some brilliant contrapuntal timing to the mix.
Along with Damon, the movie’s other MVP is Davis, whose beautifully modulated performance helps deepen the story and expand its emotional palette. Davis is often called on to go big in her roles, to let the emotion and snot flow, so it’s a pleasure watching her hold back and change it up with lapidary, minimalist precision. Like Damon, she gives her character a palpable physical solidity, but Deloris is entirely comfortable, at ease in her body and in the world, and she’s in charge. You only read her face when she wants. Michael is the star of this world, but it’s Deloris who exerts the family’s greatest gravitational force.
Affleck handles all the story’s many parts gracefully, mostly by keeping them continually spinning. There’s a lot of walking-and-talking both in offices and in halls, which never gets dull largely because of who’s doing the walking and talking. What they’re chattering about is critical, even if the movie has distilled the hard-charging, world-shifting, sometimes (oftentimes!) ethically challenged business of professional sports into a group of really nice, funny, well-meaning personalities and one not-as-nice agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), a trash-talking, phone-smashing, profane motormouth right out of HBO’s “Entourage.”