Whip Whitaker, a former Navy man now hauling tourists for SouthJet Airlines in "Flight," is a role unlike any that Denzel Washington has ever played. Early in the film, Whip daringly crash-lands a malfunctioning plane, but we expect such heroics from this actor. What we don't expect is Washington as a guy who wakes up drunk next to last night's conquest, dumps Smirnoff into his morning O.J., kick-starts his heart with cocaine -- and then climbs into the cockpit.

As so many movies will tell you, alcoholism is no fun, just a downward spiral into sickness, poverty and loneliness. What these "Barflys" and "Leaving Las Vegases" always forget is that drinking can be fun -- that's why people keep doing it.

"Flight" performs a daring wing-walk between politically incorrect comedy and gut-wrenching drama, and it succeeds partly thanks to Washington's Whip, who makes alcoholism look so enjoyable that you wish you could join him.

Whip is so charming and arrogant -- he even plays white knight to a pretty heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) -- that it's a perverse thrill to watch him self-destruct. Despite increasing public scrutiny after that horrifying crash (a queasily realistic sequence), Whip keeps drinking like Keith Richards and lying to everyone who's on his side, including his own lawyer (Don Cheadle). Whip's best friend, Harling Mays (a rock-and-rolling John Goodman), also happens to be his dealer.

Written with penetrating honesty by John Gatins, "Flight" is the first live-action film directed by motion-capture pioneer Robert Zemeckis ("The Polar Express") since 2000's "Cast Away." It's a near-perfect piece of Hollywood filmmaking, slick and accessible but artful and even profound. It's also tremendous fun, even when, inevitably, the fun must stop.

PLOT An airline pilot who heroically pulls off an emergency landing turns out to have a dark secret.

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RATING R (drug use, smoking, nudity, some violence)

CAST Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Kelly Reilly

LENGTH 2:15

BOTTOM LINE Washington's performance as a party-hearty pilot is one of many unexpected delights in this loose, funny but powerful film about addiction.