The coldhearted among us have watched Camille die tragically on the late show and have seen Brian Piccolo run his last yard through the cancer ward often enough to understand the several hazards of Hollywood "disease movies" -- false sentiment, synthetic emotion, and tears for tears' sake. It is with wariness, then, that skeptics will approach The Theory of Flight. It is, after all, a love story linking a failed painter and a young woman suffering from incurable Lou Gehrig's disease. Three minutes in you know the heroine will check out. Then the hanky-wringing begins in earnest.
But let's not be too hasty. First of all, Flight wasn't made in the mushy Hollywood of Love Story, but rather in the upright England of Mrs. Brown. Second, it features the acting services of two notable anti-sentimentalists, now very much in love off the screen: the splendid Helena Bonham Carter and the devoted Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh. Third, it can be a screamingly funny movie -- and a flagrantly bawdy one -- even as it's thrumming away on our heartstrings.
Said another way, writer Richard Hawkins, director Paul Greengrass (who started out as a documentarian), and this sublime pair of actors have fiddled with the conventions of the genre enough to reinvent it, at least in part. Who won't be delighted when Bonham Carter's doomed, wheelchair-bound heroine Jane Hatchard shoplifts a box of tampons at the supermarket, and when she turns up the volume on her voice simulator and assaults a restaurant full of people with a blare of recorded expletives. Is Jane rebellious? Sure. Smart? You bet. Self-pitying? Not in this lifetime. In fact the only thing she says she wants before dying is to lose her virginity.
Her reluctant partner in this quest is Richard Hopkins (Branagh), whose bank account is empty, whose career in art is a wreck, and whose domestic life is a failure. What to do? Why, stitch all your lousy paintings together in the shape of a parasail and leap off a building. For this act, more prank than crime, Richard is sentenced to 120 hours of community service -- specifically, to taking rebellious Jane on a series of weekly outings.
Her greeting to him: "You sorry, lonely fucker."
As it happens, though, they are natural soulmates. Both are damaged. Both are eccentric. Both are floundering in life. And together they learn that the word "flight" has several meanings: It can mean escape, and it can mean soaring. But unlike the relationships in most disease movies, this one is blessedly free of hearts and flowers. Jane and Richard bicker. They crack dark jokes about disability. They go to London to fulfill Jane's fond last wish -- a plan that might just involve bank robbery and the services of a high-priced gigolo.
They also take a common interest in Richard's newest harebrained scheme: From scraps of junk and old canvases he's now building a primitive biplane. Call out the symbol police if you must, but this lovely contraption will later provide the movie's loveliest moment.
What's liberating about The Theory of Flight is not so much its brashness or even its reckless disregard for totem and taboo. What really lifts it high is its delicate balance of outlandish charm and outright gravity. I couldn't help recalling a great maxim of George Bernard Shaw: "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh."
Words to live by, especially if you're making a movie in which the heroine has to die in the last reel. Bring a couple of hankies, to be sure, but don't forget your funny bone.