"A shoe is always just a shoe until someone steps into it," a Nike marketer played by Jason Bateman says in "Air," hinting at both the challenge and achievement of the snappy comedy.
The challenge is: Will movie audiences care about corporate wonks trying to convince Michael Jordan to endorse a sneaker? There are moments in "Air" when you may think, "Does any of this matter?" or wish it did a better job of noting that one effect of the film's negotiations is that rich white men got richer off the talents of a Black man (who, of course, also made bank).
But surprisingly, "Air" sells us on the idea that the Air Jordan is about dreams and identity as much as it is about shoes.
Aaron Sorkin had nothing to do with "Air," which was written by Alex Convery and directed by Ben Affleck. But there's a Sorkin-y feel to the profanely hilarious script, where speedy, overlapping dialogue makes it seem like the Nike execs are in a Daytona 500 of conversation as they walk-and-talk around their Oregon office building.
"Air" also recalls inspirational "West Wing" monologues when Matt Damon — as shoe hype man Sonny Vaccaro — nails two earnest speeches about the majesty of Jordan. Those speeches could be too much if they were about anyone other than Jordan, who is mostly kept off-camera. They're a smart contrast in "Air," though, because they come from Vaccaro, a short-tempered loner who is sarcastic with everyone but the Jordans.
The look back at 1984 is packed with Dire Straits/Cyndi Lauper needle-drops and terrible haircuts. But beyond the nostalgia, it's startling to remember a time when it wasn't obvious Jordan would be an NBA superstar and when Nike was on the brink of failure.
Affleck also acts in "Air," playing aphorism-spouting mogul Phil Knight. But the other key character is Viola Davis as Jordan's mother Deloris, who's his de facto agent.
Michael Jordan reportedly insisted on Davis as his mom, which suggests he might have a future as a casting director. It is a lighter-hearted role than Davis generally plays, which works in the movie's favor because even as Deloris calmly negotiates with Sonny, we're aware of deep emotions Davis brought to other characters and could haul out here, if needed.
Spoiler alert: They're not. A key "Air" theme is that these events — which still reverberate as name, image and likeness deals change the shape of NCAA sports — went down the way they did because Deloris Jordan knew exactly what her son was worth.
Davis finds an unexpected and original way to convey that. There's a subtle smile on the actor's face in every conversation Deloris has (adding a degree of difficulty, she often has no acting partner since most of her scenes are on the phone). Some of those conversations are intense — including one in which Deloris makes a casual demand that will change sports marketing forever — but Davis' face stays calm, even bemused.
That smile suggests Deloris knew a secret that no one else knew. And, of course she did: that the kid under her roof was the greatest basketball player of all time.
*** out of 4 stars
Rated: R for strong language.
Where: In theaters Wednesday.