`The Air Up There' Is Light on Substance

`THE Air Up There'' reflects the spirit of the 1990s by making a half-hearted stab at multicultural comedy. Instead of repeating the familiar jokes, gags, and situations found in garden-variety sports pictures like ``White Men Can't Jump'' and ``Field of Dreams,'' it whisks us to an obscure African town for a string of ethnically inflected variations on those jokes, gags, and situations.

The film apparently expects us to see its use of African settings, characters, and customs as a gesture of international and interracial solidarity, indicating that the physical skills and cultural goodwill associated with sports are as universal as they are desirable.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers fall into traps that frequently confront this sort of well-intentioned storytelling. Kenya, where the main events of the movie take place, is pictured as a veritable annex of the United States, populated by stock Hollywood characters who not only speak English but espouse the same values and share the same aspirations as the white American who dominates the tale. The result is breezy and likable at times, but it's about as multicultural as a travel-agency calendar.

Kevin Bacon, who was so memorable in ``JFK'' not long ago, plays an assistant coach at a small college where basketball appears to be the No. 1 priority of everyone in sight. Embittered by the injury that has sidelined his playing career, and determined to edge out a supercilious rival for the school's top coaching job, he decides to recruit an incredibly tall and talented athlete he spots in the background of a videotape shot in Africa.

THE film needs only a couple of snappy edits to land our hero in Kenya, where he tracks down his quarry in a region so far from the beaten path that other Kenyans are bursting with disrespectful jokes about the place. Obstacles arise when the gifted basketball player turns out to be the son of a tribal leader. The player can't relocate to the US unless his father approves. This won't happen unless the American visitor becomes an initiated member of the tribe and coaches his new friends to victory in a grudge match against a hostile team from a nearby city.

``The Air Up There'' has little substance to reveal about its subjects - basketball, friendship, cultural differences - and it's unlikely that Americans or Africans will benefit from its arrival. The virtues are small and ephemeral: lively performances by Bacon as the coach and Charles Gitonga Maina as the Winabi warrior with a great jump shot, and a few interesting views of everyday life in urban and rural Kenya.

The film's biggest disappointment is the photography by Dick Pope, whose icily intense images in the current British movie ``Naked'' are among the past year's most striking achievements. How could the cinematographer of ``Life Is Sweet'' and ``The Reflecting Skin'' turn in such lackluster work this time around? Perhaps the blame should be shared by Paul M. Glaser, who has directed ``The Air Up There'' with a flat and unoriginal touch. Max Apple wrote the uninspired screenplay.

* ``The Air Up There'' has a PG rating. It contains vulgar language and bathroom humor.

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