Sunday, 4 July 2010

Up in the Air (2009)

Well-acted, initially engaging, but finally facile and rather dispiriting, Up in the Air commences with a good hook: a man whose job it is to fire people, about to experience his own life travails. George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is a character that his creators seem to have competing concepts of, however. He's presented as a rootless, solitary corporate schmoozer who loves his life in hotels and airports and the faux-bonhomie of customer service, an archetype of modern commercialism incarnate, like a leftover Jack Lemmon character, and as a vaguely honourable defender of human values in an increasingly inhuman working world, like a leftover Paul Newman character. This schism is one that director Jason Reitman and his screenwriting partner Sheldon Turner (working from Walter Kirn’s novel) don’t seem to have thought out in any meaningful way. Ryan moves about the modern United States the way other people move about their own home, and indeed that’s how Ryan thinks of the country, with his intricate understanding of the best car hire companies and the benefits of elite consumer status, as one big playpen full of shiny pretty things.

Of course, Ryan’s jet-set self-satisfaction is ruffled when three significant developments in his life coincide, as they must. He meets a chic but saucy fellow traveller, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), with whom he commences an affair that is consummated whenever the pair manage to end up in the same city or close enough: she advises him to regard her as “yourself with a vagina”, but their tryst soon proves so satisfying that he’s tempted to consider her an actual, like, girlfriend. Simultaneously, he’s saddled with young go-get-‘em Princeton graduate Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who’s convinced their mutual boss, the spurious Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman in the Jason Bateman role again), to try adapting their business to the internet age and simply sack people online, an idea Ryan strenuously objects to. He’s given the task by Craig of showing Natalie what the job actually entails, confronting the gruesome emotional distress, hostility, and despair unleashed in such situations. Ryan’s a smoothie in every sense, capable of midwifing people through the moment of crisis whilst preaching a pared-down life at business seminars, offering a fantasy world of perfect control through having nothing to control. A third roadbump is the lingering ghost of familial responsibility represented by his two sisters, Kara (Amy Morton) and Julie (Melanie Lynskey), the latter of whom is getting married, requiring Ryan to attempt to fulfil some long-neglected sibling responsibilities.

Reitman deserves some credit for not belabouring a lot of throwaway details that many filmmakers would have wrung for every last drop of pathos or humour, like Julie having to uncomfortably inform Ryan that the job of giving her away is taken. He also builds an admirable sense of a provisional fellowship and the kinds of accidental joys that Ryan and Alex are adept at discovering in their life, when they sneak themselves and Natalie into a party for a posse of professionals and spend a joyous drunken night cutting loose. Reitman also offers a keen visual motif in the early segments of the film in offering grandiose aerial shots of the America that Ryan flies over, as in the opening credits, where a disarmingly funky rendition of “The Land is Your Land” scores the beautiful vistas of agriculture, landscape and urban sprawl. This communicates coherently Ryan’s love for exploring his country and viewing it from such an angle, even if he has to peddle mercenary claptrap to the victims of corporate misfortune whilst pretending it’s empowering, and explicating his tactile admiration for and yet divorcement from that world, for which, when he sets down, he represents something not unlike the visitations of the Red Death. Eric Steelberg’s photography lends the film a sharp but still malleable visual beauty.

Unfortunately, Up in the Air resolves into an utterly prosaic, puff piece of a film. Much like its hero, it never plants its feet in one spot long enough to delve with any depth. Reitman’s sit-com dialogue style and cut-to-the-chase sense of dramatic shaping precludes that – for instance, Natalie’s romantic life, the reason why she accepted a job that’s beneath her in the first place, and its curtailing, is a sub-plot poorly set up and insubstantially explored. The deliberated attempts at anti-cliché feel contrived, like having Ryan do one of those “hero dashes away from place/event/person that encapsulates what's wrong with his life to chase after the thing/person that’s important to him” runners, only to get an emotional kick in the teeth (and, as in virtually any other variation on that scene, it’s an action weirdly lacking in consequence). This kind of smoke-and-mirrors dramaturgy, like the resolution in which, tragi-comically, Ryan’s life remains exactly as he had once liked it but now seems irrevocably spoilt, leaves the film bordering on pointlessness. Reitman has no capacity whatsoever to communicate the emotions of his characters through changing the tempo and compass of his filmmaking; instead, much of the last half-hour is taken up by musical montages to try and convey disaffection. The punch-line of Ryan and Alex’s relationship, whilst reasonably affecting, is crass in its goose-gander inversion and deflating purpose. Clooney, whilst smooth in his role, seems far too innately intelligent and soulful to play a man as shallow as Ryan’s supposed to be. Nonetheless, he, Farmiga, and Kendrick share a great chemistry that makes the middle portion of the film far more engaging than the project as a whole deserves, and some good character turns from the likes of J. K. Simmons help. And Sam Elliot’s in there; he doesn’t really get to do anything, but I’m always glad when Sam Elliott turns up.

Worse yet, the film, for all its lip service to the horrors of dissociating business from humanity, has little time for its theoretical relevance: in terms of where the story leads, Ryan and Natalie’s job could be almost any fill-in-the-blank obnoxious corporate stuff, and the consequences of what they do, evinced by the suicide of one person they’ve dismissed, is bizarrely, smugly laid aside, as part of a character’s coming of age. The film cumulatively has absolutely nothing to say about modern life other than the homiest bromides: family is important, shit occasionally happens, learn to move on. Reitman offers up interviews of people who have actually been through the experience of being downsized, interspersed amongst the dramatic scenes to give his film the illusory substance of something to say about coping with such travails, but what’s actually going on in the flesh of the drama is readily familiar from other films, as recent as In Good Company and as old as The Apartment. Whilst the film mimics courage in saying that sad things are just part of the scheme of life, Reitman has no actual outrage, sorrow or engagement with the world he portrays: he’s safe in Hollywoodland. The cumulative effect is a movie that disturbingly embodies rather than critiques the alienation of professionals.


Greg said...

This film did indeed feel lacking in consequence by the time the credits rolled. I can't even remember, honestly, how it ends nor do I care. I remember thinking the chemistry was great with all and Vera Farmiga being really sexy and that's about it.

In the end, I'm really not sure what the dramatic end point was supposed to be. I'm not convinced this movie has any coherant message about its characters. All in all, it's enjoyable but just kind of... there.

Patrick said...

I didn't see this as any sort of important statement on corporate life, I did mostly like it, but I'm not sure it made any larger point. I suppose what I mostly took away from it is the Clooney character coming to realize his life was lacking something, and the things he thought were important were rather minor. You are probably correct in saying Clooney seems too intelligent to be interested in some of things his character is in the story, that's probably in the nature of movie stars.

This is a spoiler warning for anyone who hasn't seen the movie, stop here -

I thought there was one false note, and that was in his relationship with Farmiga, it seems unlikely she would have agreed to spend a weekend with him for his sister's wedding, given what we learned later in the movie about her, when Clooney went to visit her at her home.

Roderick Heath said...

You're damned right it's not an important statement on corporate life, but considering that's what this film was sold as, including by some critics, it's worth taking down for not being such. I myself initially enjoyed it but my good feelings drained away in the last third and turned stone cold dead afterwards as it became apparent the film had gone nowhere. And your false note is a well-cited one: as I said, the punchline is crass, and that's part of why it's crass.

Patrick said...

Critics are funny that way, every now and then a movie comes out that seems to be overpraised because it has a serious tone, doesn't follow usual formulas and would seem to be about an important topic. Doesn't matter that it doesn't address the subject very well. I think critics are also subject to a herd mentality at times, they get caught up in the general enthusiasm for a movie and get a little carried away, you see the movie a few years later when the buzz is gone and wonder what the fuss was about.

Roderick Heath said...

All true.

Sam Juliano said...

I found this film as finally facile and dispiriting as you did Rod, and to boot excrutiatingly dull at more intervals than I'd like to remember. I found it artificial, contrived and predictable, with only the star power of George Clooney fueling it's faltering engines. But even Clooney was a one-note purveyor of this less-than-engaging story arc, which was as emotionally distancing as any film of seen in years. (and one of the most overrated too)

Once again you've enriched the cinematic landscape with an essay of deep insights and scholarship. You definitely summed it up here perfectly, even allowing for Steelburg's admittedly exquisite lensing:

"Eric Steelberg’s photography lends the film a sharp but still malleable visual beauty.[Image]Unfortunately, Up in the Air resolves into an utterly prosaic, puff piece of a film. Much like its hero, it never plants its feet in one spot long enough to delve with any depth."

Roderick Heath said...

Greg: your comment finally showed up! Thank you, Blogger Gods! Coherent message about the characters? Ah...jeez...I think there's something, as far as Bingham is concerned, the message is something along the lines of, "if you mistake advertising mythology for life, don't be surprised if your life turns out pretty mythological". But that doesn't really square very well with portraying simultaneously as the Wise Older Dude...and as for the female parts...if you meet a woman as sexy as Vera Farmiga in an airport and credit cards turn her

Sam: I found myself saying to my father the other day that I'm looking forward to seeing Clooney in an action film (and The American looks like one, thank god) because if I have to watch him going through the paces of this kind of shallow-message dramedy again I might scream. It's funny though; I was quite enjoying the film in its first half, and then it jumped the shark like few movies I've ever seen have jumped the shark.