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“Up in the Air”: post-awards season meditation


I’ve heard a lot about “Up In The Air,” partially because it was just Oscar season, and partially because reviewers across the country have written about it as excessively as sports writers wrote about Cassius Clay. This made me want to wait a little while, because reviewers ruin movies for me.

Now I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, so don’t keep reading unless you’ve already seen it, or you just don’t care. To spell it out for you: SPOILER ALERT. Don’t come crying to me later.

The dubious premise for this film is that a superficially suave guy named Ryan Bingham spends his entire life traveling from city to city, where he is hired out to other companies with the sole purpose of firing people. He loves his isolation, and is seemingly proud of his ability to move as neatly and efficiently through life as he does through airport security.

This beautiful order of things is disrupted when a young Cornell graduate named Natalie attempts to revolutionize Bingham’s work by making it entirely web-based. Rather than traveling for 320+ days of the year, he’ll now sit in an office and fire people over webcam. In addition to all of this, Bingham finds himself falling for a fellow airport denizen and travel veteran named Alex.

The movie begins with a voice-over description, in which Clooney’s cloying voice describes exactly what his character does. And it’s within these first few sentences that you get a sense of how cool the movie wants to be. An off-beat topic and the word “f*ck” ought to let you know that this isn’t your mom’s indie Oscar bid movie, alright pal?

When Clooney lands, the movie gets to getting on. We see him moving through the airport with all the grace of a professional; director Jason Reitman makes great use of some fast-cut sequences to really drive home the point that Clooney is, if nothing else, a hell of an efficient traveler. Unfortunately, Reitman’s apparently so tickled by this technique that he uses the same one throughout the entire movie.

We’re later introduced to Clooney’s boss, played by the talentless Jason Bateman. I got the distinct impression from this movie that he’s hit a sort of rock bottom; he can’t even tell himself that he’s coasting on his past fame as the boring part of “Arrested Development” anymore. He drops his character’s drawl within the first 30 seconds of being introduced, ostensibly because even he realizes that he just sounds like a man who pops out of the bushes at the park to offer candy to children.

When Clooney meets his love interest, played by Vera Farmiga, it’s difficult to say anything along the lines of “sparks fly.” This is in large part because George Clooney’s entire approach to acting is to just be George Clooney.

In terms of the business of movies, it’s brilliant, because putting him in your movie translates into large box office. Girls think he’s dreamy. And we guys don’t mind him because at least he’s kind of old – that makes it a little less threatening when your date comes out of the theater starry-eyed, and spends the rest of the night calling you “George” by accident and then sort of sighing in resignation instead of apologizing.

There’s a scene in which Vera Farmiga and George Clooney, both connoisseurs of hotel and business lounges, compare hotel, rental car, and diner cards. It is, at best, a weak rip-off of the “American Psycho” scene with the business cards, only with a forced penis joke.

George Clooney’s impression of being drunk during their initial meeting embodies all the things that I dislike about him. He literally just slurs the occasional word and grins a lot. I don’t get the impression that this is some guy who floats through life avoiding any sort of grounding or “real emotion.” I just feel like the most irritating character from “Ocean’s Eleven” just outstripped my lowest expectations.

The new girl at Bingham’s company is played by Anna Kendrick. She’s interesting in a few different ways. First and foremost is that her face is about 35% hair. She seems normal in every other way, but she has not been blessed with any forehead whatsoever. On some level, the top 1/3rd of her head reminded me of Chewbacca’s [1].

The second is that her character shows you exactly what the director thinks of people that graduated with fancy degrees from Ivy League schools: they’re idiots. This clichéd thinking also powers a large part of the movie’s very premise, which is that corporations are soulless. It’s the same sort of unilateral, lazy labeling that made “Avatar” such a tremendous punch to the gonads/box office goliath.

As in Reitman’s other famous movie, “Juno,” character development falls by the wayside. Kendrick’s character suddenly comes to the realization that firing people so impersonally could possibly hurt some feelings! There’s no build up to this epiphany; she just gets sad. Also, the music changes so that nobody’s unclear about what’s going on.

To be fair, her character is incredibly annoying, and the fact that she’s unhappy is sort of a positive, though not as much as if there had been a sudden twist, and she turned out to be a Terminator from the future. I realize that this was a stupid hope. But if Reitman can’t care about character progression more than his cutesy acoustic soundtrack, then I absolutely refuse to give a sh*t about anything that doesn’t come from the post-apocalyptic future packing a Judas Priest attitude and a chain-gun.

Her every comedic turn falls somewhere between “memorizing the periodic table” and “fetal alcohol syndrome” on the laugh-o-meter. I have to imagine that Kendrick’s character directions were “Make Joe fantasize about snapping you over his knee and throwing you into a wheat thresher [2].”

As a minor point, Danny McBride appears in this movie as Clooney’s future brother-in-law. Unfortunately, he’s exactly the sort of guy that every other character McBride has played would destroy and/or take a dump on. It isn’t fair to typecast the man, but there are really very few actors in Hollywood who could make me believe that they’re actually unstable enough to smash a beer bottle over a 3rd grader’s head – and then make me laugh about it.

Having McBride play the meek, unfunny shit-kicker we see in this movie is a waste. It’s sort of like resurrecting Bruce Lee and then asking him to do Proust readings instead of being a screaming, perfect killing machine with crazy eyes.

The good bits in this movie, when you come across them, do verge on great. The camera work is tight, focused, and bobs along with the same sense of impersonal purpose as any business executive on his way to a connecting flight. The colors of the airports, cities, and hotels are muted and entirely interchangeable, just like the experience of extended traveling itself. It’s all clear plastic cups, logos on napkins, and the Hilton sign shining dully out over a city that might as well have no name.

But the best part of this movie, and the part I had heard the least about before watching, was Vera Farmiga. I liked her in “The Departed” because she knew how to come across as both competent and broken, all at once. She brings a lot of that same subtlety to this role, managing to be funny and appealing, but still a little off-kilter. She also acts like a woman who’s sexually confident; it was a nice change from the standard Hollywood Cliff Notes version of that, in which writers just try to make girls sound like unlikeable guys.

We find out, eventually, that Farmiga’s character is married, with a family. Her entire relationship with Clooney  was a sort of weird escapist sham that she never actually apologizes for. It isn’t nice, or sweet, or in any way conducive to a happy ending.

The characters all go their separate ways, not even sure if they’re happy or unhappy with how things have worked out. In fact they aren’t even fully aware that they may have been on some sort of journey [3]. Clooney’s character seems a little lost, bewildered, and vaguely aware that he’s better off now even if he was happier before. In a word, this movie ends hard. And it was fantastic, especially for a jaded writer that was dreading everything working out for a bunch of ham-fisted caricatures.

Overall, this movie fell short of what it could have been: a genuinely weird look at a character that chooses to be emotionally stunted. Instead, it was a film about the questionable emotional journey of some guy who may or may not be a complete jerk, with as many charm thrown in as possible. It made up a lot of ground in the last third, though, and was ended pretty courageously. I felt It was a movie with attitude, but one that wanted desperately to impress.

Unfortunately, genuine cool – and real artistic freedom – stem from the ability to truly, completely not give a sh*t about anyone’s opinion but your own.

[1] Sentences like this tend to get at multiple reasons as to why my success with the ladies is “suboptimal.”

[2] It’s an outlandish theory, but no other explanation fits.

[3] This probably doesn’t apply fully to Clooney’s character.