Saturday, December 5, 2009

Up in the Air

In fact, there are three George Clooney movies in theaters right now. I haven't seen The Men Who Stare At Goats yet (I have it on good authority that doing so will only depress me as a die hard Clooney fan), but I have seen the other two. While The Fantastic Mr. Fox uses only Clooney's voice, Up in the Air uses only his face. Why this charming man wants to waste his considerable talent on a project like this I cannot imagine; he already has an acting Oscar and when he accepted it he stated outright that he'd rather have been canonized as a director.

As far as baiting the Oscars goes, Up In The Air at least has the decency and courage not to cook up a happy ending. This may be the only truly surprising thing about the piece: for all its contrivance and easy setup, it sure doesn't end with redemption and triumph. What the point is, then, eludes me.

Attempting to simultaneously satirize, mock, soothe and ultimately cash in on the American people's fears about the current economic climate, the movie tries to do a lot of abhorrent things all at once. Fortunately, director Jason Reitman, following his similarly slick entertainments Thank You For Smoking and Juno (the latter being one of the most irritating movies of the decade, though I'd blame the celebrity Entertainment Weekly columnist / screenwriter Diablo Cody for that one) has proved that he knows a thing or two about packaging an afterschool-special moral conscience so that it seems like high art. His strengths are not to be denied; rather, they must be feared.

Because what is Up in the Air about, exactly? Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, star employee of the Career Transition Corporation. He flies around the country firing people for a living and loves it because he only has to spend forty miserable nights a year at his apartment in Omaha. When a naive girl just out of Cornell shows up with an idea to ground him by having all the terminations executed on the cheap over video chat, he takes her around the country with him so she can see just how delicate their job is. He shuns all human connection, while she relishes it, having relocated to Omaha over more lucrative opportunities just to follow a boy she liked. It's a preposterous setup. Over the course of the film, she will grow up and he will learn to love again; this should come as a surprise to no one.

As a satire goes, it's a decent throughline, but Reitman poses Bingham as an everyman fighting to retain his status quo, resulting in a lot of mixed messages disguised as complexity. The grave problem with Bingham isn't that he is a hollow shell of a man - it's that we are never shown what made him like this. Asked to accept this preposterous archetype as some kind of reflection of modern man's existential dilemma, and if this is supposed to somehow edify me or invigorate my own existential crises, I am left asking, "Where's the subtext?"

Especially grating is that this arguement between the Self and the Community is recurring between Clooney and Anna Kendrick, his young sidekick. Kendrick may be one of the best actors in the Twilight series, but next to Clooney and Vera Farmiga, she just comes off as juvenile and whiny. The funniest moment of the film comes when she breaks down crying and Clooney responds with a deadpan, "Aw, fuck." Right there with you, buddy. Her crack about Clooney's age was a lot funnier a decade ago coming from Brad Pitt in Ocean's Eleven.

Farmiga, on the other hand, is a superb foil for Clooney - she may be the best Hepburn to his Tracy that he's found yet (though topping a list that includes Renee Zellweger, Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lopez is, admittedly, not so difficult and I dream of what Soberbergh could've done with them). I only wish they had some better material. They're playing with a fourth grade chemistry set here, and as much of a joy as it can be to watch two attractive, charismatic people half-naked in a hotel room, it would be a lot more interesting to watch them in a movie with some substance.

The hands-down best scene in the movie is between Clooney and J.K. Simmons as one of the terminated employees. Simmons' role amounts to a cameo, but the scene is framed by Kendrick screwing up the deal and Clooney saving the day by leading Simmons into the realization that with every ending comes a new beginning (his cliché, not mine). The two men are operating here on a level high above the rest of the movie, a level with actual pathos and emotion. Up in the Air aims for the stars and falls all too short.


  1. I agree, Farmiga is great.

    As far as archetypes go, I didn't find this one preposterous. My problem was, as you bring up here, that he kind of wants to have his cake and eat it too. If your entire main character is based on this rejection of human relationships, then it doesn't make sense for your major plot point to revolve around that same character being the only person on the job who sees the necessity of human interaction. Very inconsistent.

    Also, the girl was annoying. The crying ('crying') scene was like something out of a different movie.

  2. There's a necessary complexity to Clooney's character that the film just skirts over. He thrives (professionally) on human connection but rejects (personally) the very same. However, Ryan Bingham never actually confronts this basic hypocrisy in his existence. Rather, the film would have us believe he does, but he does so only in the most cutesy, post-Sam Mendes manner at his sister's wedding. It's too obvious to be subtle and too malformed to be powerful.

    And come on! Clooney v. Danny McBride? Clooney v. Anna Kendrick? Clooney v. that girl playing his sister? He is so totally slumming it here.

  3. Sorry, I meant his *other* sister, not Melanie Lynskey. If they'd swapped the casting on his two sisters it might've been - marginally - a better film.