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Miserable, small town girl Donna Jensen (Gwyneth Paltrow), down on her luck, with an alcoholic stepfather and a cheating boyfriend, sees a talk show featuring rags to riches author and flight attendant Sally Watson (Candice Bergen) and decides to change her life by following in her footsteps but discovers a first class ticket to your dreams is a ride full of turbulence. Throw in some romance, some rivalries, some Christmas who-ha and you’ve got another standard Hollywood fantasy flop.
Directed by Bruno Barreto, View From the Top is a wildly uneven comedy/drama that has an imaginative and inspiring premise, populated by terrific actors in some good performances but is grounded by a tone that shifts too sporadically, never truly settling into a genre that works. While almost the entire cast is on target, including Paltrow who is plucky and fun to watch, and Bergen, a joy as her mentor, the one exception, sadly, is Mike Myers who misfires in every scene he is in, bringing his usual spot-on goofiness to a script that simply doesn’t need it, like a clown stumbling into Coen Brothers film. It almost feels as if he was told it was one thing and everyone else another. His character is so off-the-wall and filled with parody, it shreds any legitimacy earned by the others. That’s not to say his John Witney, a flight attendant school instructor forced to stay on the ground due to his severe wandering eye isn’t funny, because in the right movie, it could have really been. Yet as here, it’s almost unwatchable as we are left spinning as if we keep accidnelty walking onto a different film set.
That’s not to say he carries the entire burden for the film’s failure. There are other sudden spikes into absurdity that simply don’t work. A forced conflict between fellow attendant Christine Montgomery (Christina Applegate) is one that should never have lasted for several reasons, with the most obvious being she’s simply not that good at her job. Still, there are moments that find there way to the top, as it were, including the relationship between Donna and a law-student named Ted Stewart (Mark Ruffalo). They meet in Cleveland when Donna, expecting to earn her place in the coveted “Paris, First Class International” route is otherwise sent to the minor leagues because . . . well, reasons!
Ruffalo brings a lot of warmth and reality to the movie, his natural charismatic personality making him the most likable character in the movie and a good choice for the part. While Donna remains undaunted in pursuing the Paris route, Stewart takes her in and supports her dreams while working hard to secure his own. In a short time, the two grow close and develop a strong connection and genuine love for each other that we know, and she knows, will be a problem if she gets the call to move up. As if that is somehow never going to happen.
Either way, as Donna struggles with life on a skeazy commuter plane, she realizes that while her dreams of flying back and forth in First Class are out of reach for now, the days pass by well because of Ted, who is a comfort and inspiration. Naturally, Ted feels they could have a life together in Cleveland and wants to make it a real thing. The first real step in becoming an actual couple for him though comes at the Holidays when Ted invites her to join him at the Stewart Family Christmas (which is nothing like the Griswold Family Christmas) so she can meet his parents and more.
She is hesitant but accompanies and the family welcomes her as she graciously and humbly sits by his side, taking part in the festivities, but is overwhelmed when the real gift comes, that of the annual Stewart Family uniform, the red turtleneck sweater just like what everyone is wearing. It’s a small moment, but a touching one and hints how effective the film might better have worked if they stuck to this sentiment. The relationship between these two people is far more interesting and much more compelling than any of the “comedy” bits that throw Donna into increasingly unrealistic and curious moments that undermine the real heart of the movie.
While the Christmas moment itself is thoroughly clichéd, what makes it work is how honest it feels, especially with Ruffalo and Paltrow, who seem so natural together. It’s a moment that while structured for maximum emotional manipulation, succeeds because that is want it should do. It’s really the only time where the film finds its groove. Ruffalo and Paltrow would team up again as lovers in 2012’s Thank You For Sharing, and prove they still make a great on-screen couple, but here is where they could have begun perhaps a great cinematic duo, like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but unfortunately are wasted in a silly airplane comedy that never takes off.