A brain, when strained, fails insanely near the planes. Translation: When air-traffic controller Nick Falzone (John Cusack), head hotshot in a roomful of stressed-out jet jockeys, finds his supremacy — and peace of mind — challenged by maverick newcomer Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton) in Pushing Tin, the ensuing quien-es-mas-macho rivalry throws Nick’s marriage, job, and sense of self into sudden turbulence.
Such flailing paranoia and desperate confusion represent new dramatic territory for Cusack, whose screen persona typically rests between the extremes of Smirking Daredevil and Neurotic Ditherer. In fact, Cusack seems like an enhanced Everyguy, marked by the courage to follow his own inner compass. That wry yet watchful self-assurance is the key to his quiet magnetism, a star-making specialty that has set Cusack apart ever since his beginnings in a swamp of crass, chaotic mid-’80s teen comedies (”One Crazy Summer,” anyone?).
If only ”Pushing Tin”’s Nick could keep his priorities straight. It’s a treat to watch Cusack riff on his usual persona by playing a character who can’t figure out what the heck is going on in his own head. But this rich opportunity is dissipated by the filmmakers’ wussiness: The script, by ”Cheers” cocreators Les and Glen Charles, veers off into pseudo-profundity, while director Mike Newell (”Four Weddings and a Funeral”) keeps the camera at such a respectful distance that the tension never builds. With a little more finesse in the control tower, maybe this star vehicle could’ve taken off.