That Miramax held back the release of stewardess-chic Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle View From the Top raises a question: What on earth did the thing look like before it was “fixed”? Clearly this contraption has been tinkered with by various parties, none of whom appear to have been speaking with the others, but the framework of a fresh, daffy comedy is still discernible beneath the mess of dangling pipes and wires.

Everything that could go wrong here does; only costume designer Mary Zophres’ exquisite flight-fantasy outfits and the script’s genuine ardor for the mile-high world, with its crisp efficiencies and hermetic hierarchies, hint at the soignée throwback View From the Top could have been. Screenwriter Eric Wald clearly harbors nostalgia for a time when people dressed up to travel and flight attendants were the classiest good-time girls next door—witness the casting of the aristocratic Paltrow as the small-towner who dreams of soaring.

But the final product, cheap-looking and tonally imbalanced, screams for a Mira Sorvino, a trashy but game people-pleaser who could make the transformation from Hooters Girl-in-the-sky to elegant first-class air hostess on sheer gumption. Paltrow is never less than charming and professional, yet her cheekbones imply a destiny that doesn’t win the audience over so much as pre-empt its doubts. She doesn’t need you rooting for her; with those genes, she’s halfway there.

So it’s hard to buy that Donna Jensen, daughter of an ex-showgirl idling away in a trailer in Silver Springs, Nev., has always been told that she’ll never escape her hometown or make something of herself, even if her voice-over keeps insisting just that. View From the Top uses the device as an expedient cheat, telling us things its images and dialogue can’t be bothered to prove. When Donna’s boyfriend, a colleague at a Wal-Mart-like store, breaks up with her, explaining that she’s a “small-town girl” (everyone keeps repeating this phrase; it’s even in the Journey song that opens the film) despite the narration about her yearning to split Silver Springs in search of success, you wonder if he’s been listening—or if he just didn’t get a copy of the script.

Given new hope by the autobiography of celebrity flight attendant Sally Weston (Candace Bergen), Donna takes a job at a tacky shuttle airline, where she’s compressed into an orange-and-pink polyester outfit complete with cleavage keyhole. Inspired by Sally’s enormous closet, rich husband, and endless supply of motivational blather, Donna is determined to go for the air-hostess gold—”Paris/First-Class/International.” Under Sally’s tutelage, she struggles up through the ranks of Royalty Airlines, avenging back-stabbers and calling in favors as necessary.

Bergen is much more comfortable playing retired queens of girly-girl pursuits than she ever was playing the younger version; she’s grown in poise, and her rough voice, once so ungainly, suggests that she’s earned the right to stop purring at men. It’s also fun to watch Paltrow’s Donna springingly outperform her fellow Royalty trainees. But because Donna’s hard work is merely one aspect of her overall perfection, it’s not very satisfying that the only obstacles in her path are thrown in arbitrarily by the script, which seems to have been written by a high-school homecoming court. People betray Donna because they’re just jealous that she’s classier—and prettier, too. A truly grotesque and unfunny catfight even ensues in the swank cabin of Donna’s first high-end flight, and that’s another problem: At what point did she learn to speak another language, as required of international-route flight attendants? That one day she listened to a tape? And who’s this blob she claims to be in love with?

The blob is Ted (a grievously miscast Mark Ruffalo), a law student who encourages Donna to follow her bliss right up to the moment she gets the opportunity to do so. Yes, it turns out that she’s not fulfilled without love, and it’s enraging that the assemblers and tinkerers behind this thing can’t even maintain the integrity of their own dopey template: Girl pursues dream, girl loses dream, girl gets dream. When did Donna’s dream go from Paris/First-Class/International to living in the Midwest with the jerk who sneered at her for wanting Paris/First-Class/International?

A tacked-on tag at the end tries to redeem the whole mess in the name of feminist empowerment—which is exactly what I thought the film was aspiring to up until Ted entered the picture. Apparently, Hollywood types just can’t believe it’s enough to let a character have what they claim she wants; they have to muck it up with their sexist insistence that she dump it all for love, and then grin uneasily that it’s OK, she’s become something better than a mere waitress in the sky. Dream big, little ladies, but don’t forget your aprons. CP