Watching “View from the Top” is like being stuck in a time warp. From all appearances the romantic comedy is supposed to be set in the present. But the sensibility of the movie is positively archaic. The story, about a small-town Nevada girl who has to decide between her dream of being a glamorous international stewardess and the love of a good man who lives in (gulp!) Cleveland, belongs to a generation long ago and far away; as it unwinds you might find yourself hearing the theme song from the old Mary Tyler Moore show shouting “You’re gonna make it, after all” as the movie’s mantra. But in the final analysis the picture hearkens back even further than 1970. Mary Richards, after all, found that she could get along perfectly well as a single woman; here heroine Donna Jensen discovers that when she finally achieves her ambition, it tastes like ashes, because she has to enjoy it all alone. It seems we’re actually back in the world of Doris Day. (The array of golden oldies on the soundtrack, on the other hand, is of more recent vintage. I like “Time After Time” as much as anyone, but even it begins to pale here.) With a bit of imagination, this hoary tale could have been turned into a satire of old cinematic conventions. But in the hands of writer Eric Wald and director Bruno Barreto, the humor is all of the “cute” variety, and we’re expected to be touched as well as amused by the outdated nonsense. In an era when “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” becomes an unexpected megahit, perhaps Wald and Barreto will prove to know best. But that’s very doubtful.
Of course, it could be that the natural glamor of Gwyneth Paltrow will be enough for viewers. She plays Jensen, initially presented as a hayseed girl in a small town whose job is in the luggage department of a Big Lots! store. (For those of you unacquainted with the chain, Big Lots! is like a poor man’s K-Mart.) When her long-time boyfriend (Marc Blucas) dumps her because she’s not sophisticated enough to accompany him to a big town like Phoenix, she determines to escape her stifling life, inspired by Sally Weston (Candice Bergen), an erstwhile stewardess who’s become a celebrity by writing a best-selling advice book. In a flash Donna snares a job as a flight attendant for a ramshackle local airline, and after a brief stint there (where she’s decked out in a tight, tight outfit that looks as though it’s made of neon spandex, and she comes to terms with her initial fear of flying–yuk, yuk), she and chum Christine (Christina Applegate) get accepted as trainees with luxurious Royalty Air, Sally’s old firm–indeed, Sally herself becomes her admiring mentor. She’s under the immediate supervision, however, of a chief instructor (Mike Myers) who’s a by-the-book martinet grounded by the fact that he suffers from a single crossed eye. Despite the fact that Donna’s the star student and Christine the doofus, it’s the latter who snags the highly-coveted New York slot, while Donna’s exiled to Cleveland commuter limbo. The posting has its benefits: it reconnects her with Ted (Mark Ruffalo), a sweet-tempered law student she’d met back west with whom she now gets serious. Her dream of international flight persists, though, and when Christine shows up unexpectedly, it leads to revelations that finally get her what she’s always wanted. But it means leaving Ted behind for the lights of Paris. Can they really make her forget him?
The most interesting part of all this is watching Paltrow’s transformation from bumbling hayseed to elegant sophisticate; it’s like the change that Audrey Hepburn did so often (or Leslie Caron in “Gigi”), and it carries a certain nostalgic charge, especially when the subject is so beautiful and her changing wardrobe coiffure so carefully chosen. (The candy-colored look of the picture, with its rainbow of pastels, helps.) But the material is so weak that Paltrow has little to do besides pose, smile and model her duds gracefully. Even at that, she’s a lot better off than her co-stars. Ruffalo goes about with a perpetually dazed, embarrassed expression, looking as if he’s just been smashed in the face with a medicine ball. Applegate, who’s quite gorgeous herself, has to act unpleasantly nasty, and Bergen offers little beyond her customary Murphy Brown waspishness in a part that’s completely implausible. Saddest of all, though, is poor Myers, whom the script offers little beyond a physical infirmity as a basis for humor. As a result he can do little but be manic from beginning to end; it’s the same sort of desperation he used to evince when stuck in a particularly poor SNL sketch.
Despite all the weaknesses, though, “View from the Top” could have been less tedious if it were directed with a lighter touch. Unfortunately, Barreto is hardly the man for the job. He stages everything slowly and emphatically, italicizing the poverty of inspiration rather than concealing it. A cat-fight scene between Donna and Christine late in the picture is the nadir; presumably it’s meant to be funny, but it’s gruesome instead. Barreto’s leaden approach insures that the picture loses altitude faster than AMR stock. As early as the mid-way point, you’re likely to find the heroine’s predicament a bore. By then you might longingly recall an earlier scene, when a pilot is conked out asleep in the cockpit, and conclude that a viewer would be well advised to follow his example.