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This film image released by Paramount Pictures shows Denzel Washington portraying Whip Whitaker in a scene from "Flight." (AP Photo/PARAMOUNT PICTURES, Robert Zuckerman) ------ 2col color
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BY ROGER MOORE
McCLATCHY-TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
ORLANDO, Fla.--When was the last time Hollywood gave us a drug dealer as a hero, as comic relief in a drama?
It's not something that happens often in a country where "Just say no" rivals "E pluribus unum" as a national credo. But here is Harling Mays, lifelong pal of substance-abusing pilot "Whip" Whitaker, the comical candyman whose every entrance signifies emotional rescue, good times and "Just say YES" in the new drama "Flight."
"Just say yes," laughs John Goodman, who plays Harling. "No way I'm owning that. Not something we want the kids to take up, is it?"
The "yes" phrase gets a laugh out of "Flight" screenwriter John Gatins.
"Flight" stars Denzel Washington as the pilot who acts heroically and saves many lives after his plane has a catastrophic mechanical failure. The guy flunks his drug test after the crash--big time. But Harling is the guy who can ease his pain, get his "edge" back--with pharmaceuticals.
"I don't know if I'm glamorizing coke dealers, or even if Harling is a glamorous or cool character," Gatins says. "Harling is exactly who he seems to be." And who he seems to be, Gatins says, is Whip Whitaker's one true-blue friend.
'WE ALL HAVE THAT GUY'
Gatins is stunned by the reactions to this character, whom the Village Voice praised for his "dirtbag bonhomie," whom Screen Daily described as the film's "riskiest performance," a jolly, bad-influence Falstaff to Denzel's Prince Hal.
"I've seen the movie with a lot of audiences now, and the scene pops up where Harling is strolling down that hallway with a knapsack full of cocaine, riding to the rescue, people are cheering," Gatins says. "It's the strangest thing. I want to ask people, 'Why are you cheering?'"
Credit the director, Robert Zemeckis, who scores Harling's entrance with the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil." Credit the screenplay, which sees Harling as an uncomplicated character in a movie full of moral ambiguity. And credit Goodman, the lovable big man who decided "Harling is stuck in another era," and gave him the clothes, the shades and the ponytail--"Hair extensions, man. Two months. It was hell."--to match.