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Director Ben Affleck achieves liftoff in the relentlessly entertaining “Air”

The movie is a bit insubstantial, but remains a pleasure from beginning to end

“Air,” his first directorial effort since the ill-fated “Live by Night,” is another chapter in this ongoing story of creative revitalization.
“Air,” his first directorial effort since the ill-fated “Live by Night,” is another chapter in this ongoing story of creative revitalization.

Ben Affleck, the famous actor and director behind the acclaimed “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” has experienced about as many career pivots as is possible in modern Hollywood. Hailed at the beginning of his career for his role in co-writing the instantly iconic “Good Will Hunting,” his later roles in several notorious critical flops led audiences to quickly sour on his screen presence.

Maybe it is fitting, then, that a man who partly made his name off of screenwriting helped to revitalize his career with a turn into directing. Affleck’s directorial debut, the aforementioned “Gone Baby Gone,” helped to catapult him back into popularity. This career rebound culminated during the 2013 Academy Awards, during which “Argo,” a film he directed and starred in, took home the Best Picture trophy.

Then, as had become custom for Affleck at that point, fortunes shifted. In the span of just a few years towards the end of last decade, both his personal and professional luck hit a downturn. “Live by Night,” his gangster epic that succeeded the aforementioned Best Picture winner, was a critical and commercial failure, as was his time inhabiting the role of the Caped Crusader in a string of disappointing blockbusters.

Still, those professional troubles likely seemed frivolous in the face of his collapsing marriage with Jennifer Garner and intensifying battle with alcoholism. The man who, just a few years earlier, had won the most prestigious prize in the industry was suddenly incapable of catching a break.

But, as is always the case in Hollywood, things change. In the last few years, Affleck has reasserted himself as a captivating screen presence, absolutely excelling in recent films such as “The Way Back” and “The Last Duel.”

“Air,” his first directorial effort since the ill-fated “Live by Night,” is another chapter in this ongoing story of creative revitalization. The 1984-set movie follows Sonny Vaccaro, a Nike basketball talent scout played by a schlubby Matt Damon, in his seemingly quixotic quest to sign Michael Jordan, then a college player at the University of North Carolina, for a lucrative shoe deal with the company.

If that hardly sounds like the stuff of gripping drama, Affleck and writer Alex Convery have a few surprises up their sleeves. Fashioning their movie in the style of walk and talk classics like “The Social Network” and “Moneyball,” the collaborators structure the movie around a series of tense meetings and negotiations, sprucing up their dialogue with colorful insults and clichéd inspirational speeches aplenty.

It helps that they have a cast so committed to making the repartee sing. In two central roles, Damon and Jason Bateman both bring a charming affability to their performances, providing some human anchoring to all of the corporate drama. In addition, Chris Messina nearly steals the movie as Jordan’s foulmouthed agent, and Viola Davis brings her trademark intensity and steely focus to the role of the player’s devoted mother.

Of course, one would be remiss not to mention Affleck’s role as Phil Knight, the Nike co-founder and former CEO responsible for endorsing Vaccaro’s arguably reckless business strategy. While the part is not meaty enough for him to reach some of the acting heights he has as of late, Affleck is charmingly aloof in the role, bringing a weary quality to the perpetually stressed CEO that ends up being a perfect fit for the role.

The movie, ultimately, feels a bit too insubstantial to reach genuine greatness. While it emulates the snappy style of the aforementioned “The Social Network” and “Moneyball,” those films exhibited more dramatic complexity than this movie’s comparative fluffiness.

Still, the movie remains thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end. On paper, one might consider it a stretch to ever call an Academy Award winner, or a behemoth corporation vying for increased competitiveness in the basketball shoe market, a true underdog. But for all 111 rousing minutes of the film’s running time, “Air” proves remarkably gifted at making you believe.