For those facing real life physical or mental challenges, such conditions and the public's reaction to them can certainly present more than a fair share of challenges and rewards. For performers who decide to play characters facing any range of disabilities, however, the result is almost always rewarding and usually comes in the form of various award nominations.
From Oscar winners such as Tom Hanks ("Forrest Gump"), Dustin Hoffman ("Rain Man"), Al Pacino ("Scent of a Woman") and Daniel Day-Lewis ("My Left Foot"), to nominees like Tom Cruise ("Born on the Fourth of July"), Robert De Niro ("Awakenings"), Robin Williams ("The Fisher King") and Leonardo DiCaprio ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape"), playing a character with a disability is almost a certain way to get a chance at nabbing one of those golden statuettes.
However, it's not often that you see women in such roles, which brings us to Helena Bonham Carter ("A Room With a View," "Hamlet"). While her performance in "The Theory of Flight" will likely draw her praise and her second Oscar nomination in a row (after last year's "The Wings of the Dove"), it's just too bad that not as much attention was paid to the rest of the film as her performance.
As a result, the film often feels like nothing more than a promotional vehicle pushing her for the Oscars, Globes, and all of the rest. All of which is a shame, because it does nothing but simply detract from her otherwise compelling performance as a woman suffering from what's commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
It also doesn't help that this film -- a decidedly offbeat and unsentimental look at an unconventional romance -- tries so hard to be offbeat and cute that its inner mechanisms -- the puppeteer's strings if you will -- show too much.
Whenever a film uses sped up footage during a musical montage (apparently to show just how much fun the two characters are having together) -- especially in a film like this -- you know you and the filmmakers are collectively in trouble. That, coupled with scenes of Kenneth Branagh ("Celebrity," "Dead Again,") mugging and practicing his "hold up" face and behavior in front of a mirror only go to show that the film has simply run out of steam by that point.
Possibly somewhat based on a true story -- our uncertainty is due to an end obit credit that implies real events, but nothing is mentioned in the press materials either way -- the film isn't horrible by any means and it does have the potential to be quite interesting, considering the young woman's goal and unique challenge.
Unfortunately, first-time feature director Paul Greengrass' (a former TV documentarian) steerage and Richard Hawkins' screenplay offer relatively few laughs, no emotional surges, and end up occasionally teetering between lame comedy and overall bad taste once the picture's big "surprise" -- namely Jane's desire to lose her virginity before her death -- is let out of the bag.
Despite the eventual and obligatory symbolism of taking flight both emotionally and physically, Greengrass and Hawkins never quite figure out what type of story they want to tell -- uplifting or offbeat -- resulting in the audience never quite connecting with the plot or the characters.
Even so, Carter is quite good and believable in her role, but her accuracy in mimicking the slurred speech of a person affected by Motor Neuron disease often leaves the viewer straining to understand exactly what she's saying.
Branagh, who seems to have taken a liking to lightweight comedies these days, is okay in his role as the somewhat eccentric fly-boy, but when his character eventually tells Jane that he can't personally fulfill her need by stating "I'm a cripple," everyone in the theater will be rolling their eyes. Nonetheless, the eventually realized chemistry between the two seems real enough, but of course it's based on the real-life thing (the two are an off-screen couple).
Perhaps the story seemed like it would work well on paper, but as a film it just doesn't quite have what it takes to successfully lift off. Despite Carter's performance that will most likely earn her some nominations (partially due to the standard lack of well-written female roles), the film never gets out of second gear as it sputters and coughs trying to figure out what it wants to be. We give the unnecessarily grounded "The Theory of Flight" a 5 out of 10.