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Ben Affleck is a barefoot shoe executive in "Air."

I was getting worried about Ben Affleck as a filmmaker. After Argo won that Best Picture Oscar 11 years ago, he followed it up with the self-important gangster film Live by Night. He could have made more films, but he was busy playing Batman, which even he thinks wasn’t a good idea. Now he’s back in the director’s chair for the workplace comedy Air, which reunites him with some old friends and shows him much more relaxed. The result is highly entertaining, which is all that he or any other filmmaker really needs to be.

It’s 1984, and Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is an ornery basketball scout at Nike, a company that’s worth close to $1 billion because of its tracksuits and running shoes, but a distant third in the basketball market behind Converse and Adidas. The Beaverton, Ore., sportswear manufacturer has a measly $250,000 to spend on sneaker deals for the players selected in the NBA draft, and while Nike’s other basketball people have written off the top three picks, Sonny thinks the company needs to sign Michael Jordan to catch their competitors. His belief in the teenager’s composure and will to win is so strong that he goes behind the backs of marketing VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck), and Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina) to contact Jordan’s family directly, even though the player himself is dead set on wearing Adidas.

Basketball people who were around back then will tell you that Jordan was no sure bet coming out of college, which is why he was picked third — Houston selected hometown hero Hakeem Olajuwon first overall and had few regrets, while Portland grabbed Sam Bowie with the second pick, something you should not bring up among Trail Blazer fans. That’s why the people around Sonny think he’s insane for wanting to stake his career and blow Nike’s entire marketing budget on the North Carolina shooting guard. Those same people also don’t want to go near fifth pick Charles Barkley (too mouthy) or 16th pick John Stockton (where the hell is Gonzaga?). They like Melvin Turpin instead. So much for their basketball savvy.

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Michael Jordan (Damian Young) only speaks two lines in the film, and we never see his face. This is mostly the right decision — where it goes wrong is in the climactic speech that Sonny gives Michael during the corporate pitch. We need to see how the speech about the perils of athletic greatness is working on the young man.

That’s a rare misstep, though. The MVP of this movie might just be Alex Convery, the screenwriter receiving his first screen credit on this project. He spins out a lot of funny jokes in Sonny’s profanity-laced phone conversations with Falk and his boardroom pleadings with Phil, and a scene at a bar when U.S. Olympic assistant coach George Raveling (Marlon Wayans) tells Sonny about an encounter he had with Martin Luther King is perfectly pitched. There are spots where Convery overdoes it, like when Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis) makes one last contract demand to Sonny on behalf of her son. That goes on too long, although Davis, after having spent much of the preceding film doing not very much, manages to make the scene work anyway.

She’s emblematic of the rest of the cast, as the witty banter is volleyed expertly by Bateman and Chris Tucker as Nike player-relations VP Howard White. Amid this star-laden cast, pop-eyed, helium-voiced Matthew Maher steals his scenes as Nike’s maladjusted shoe designer Peter Moore, who actually invents the Air Jordan. Affleck doesn’t mind playing the buffoon occasionally, as Phil spouts eye-roll-inducing Zen koans and slides his contract offer to Michael across the conference table, only for the manila folder to not even make it halfway there. Surrounded by so many big personalities, it would be easy even for a star like Damon to get lost, but he anchors the proceedings with his calm resolve.

All this is enough to make me, a basketball fan who doesn’t give a crap about sneakers and sneaker deals, delight in this yarn. In movies and in basketball, it doesn’t always work out when friends decide to work together (just ask the Brooklyn Nets), but Air is the most enjoyable Matt & Ben group hang I’ve ever dropped in on.

Air
Starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Directed by Ben Affleck. Written by Alex Convery. Rated R.

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