Tuesday, January 05, 2010

View from the Tank: UP IN THE AIR (2009)

Every time there's a scene in a movie where someone runs through an airport, driven by love, I cringe a little. There's a scene like that in UP IN THE AIR, which is a fine movie, but not a great one.

The film is about Ryan Bingham (Clooney), who works for a company that contracts to handle firing employees for employers. Bingham flies around the country to different companies, firing individuals, handing them a glossy packet "that contains the answers to all of [their] questions," and delivering a speech about how everyone who has ever built an empire once sat in the position the person being fired finds himself in. Bingham delivers motivational speeches in various hotel ballrooms about the virtues of living with a metaphorical "empty backpack" -- free of attachments, long-term commitments, etc. All so much dead weight that ties one down -- harbingers of stagnation and death. Bingham loves the regular and standardized comforts of airports, airport hotels, airport lounges, rental cars, etc., and his life goals include reaching a certain astronomical number of frequent-flyer miles.

Bingham's way of life is threatened by two women. His beloved business-class nomadism is threatened when his company hires a young go-getter, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who proposes eliminating the face-to-face method of terminating employees and instead using something like Skype to terminate employees by webcam. And Bingham's "empty backpack" philosophy is threatened when he begins to develop feelings for a fellow corporate road warrior he meets in a airport-hotel lounge, Alex (Vera Farmiga).

A lot has been made about how timely this movie is, how tapped into the current Zeitgeist. There's some of that, sure. And the initial interviews with real-life laid-off people helps bring the pain of the last year and a half vividly to the screen. But there's something glib about the movie's attempt to tap into the pain of the recession. The final interviews suggest that getting laid off is okay, because it helps you realize what's truly important: family, the little things, etc. That may be true, but one wonders how the laid-off feel as the unemployment checks come to an end, as the house is foreclosed, etc. It's just a little too easy for the filmmakers to suggest that, hey, these laid-off people are going to be okay, they've rediscovered their love for their spouses, kids, and pets, etc.

For the most part, UP IN THE AIR does not dwell on those issues -- though it does suggest that the consequences of being laid off can indeed be terrible. But the ending interviews with the non-actors felt a little too pat, and I felt like the filmmakers were, in a way, letting themselves, and the audience, off the hook, by assuring us that these real individuals, whose pain we were contemplating as we sipped our Sprites and munched on our Gummi Bears, had found something deeper and more significant than their former jobs. It all came off as a bit glib.

As did a lot of this movie, which was, undoubtedly, well acted, well edited, and well written. It was a pretty good movie, a fine, mildly intelligent entertainment. It just wasn't a great movie. For the most part, it was predictable and unsurprising. Its main saving grace was a bravely ambiguous ending.

Part of my problem with the movie is that I have a hard time feeling sorry for George Clooney -- and we are supposed to feel, at certain points in this movie, sorry for his character, Ryan. It just doesn't work. Despite the comic antics and grimaces he's picked up from his Coen brothers work, Clooney somehow always ends up playing himself. He's always the same smooth-talking slick guy looking sharp in his suit, whether in MICHAEL CLAYTON, OCEAN'S 11, or UP IN THE AIR. (He did bravely shed his hunkiness and get fat for his relatively minor role in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. And I should note that I haven't seen SYRIANA.) I have a hard time worrying for him, or feeling that things are not going to work out for him -- because he's George Clooney, and things will always work out for him. So, even during the darkest parts of this movie, I had a hard time sympathizing with Bingham, even though the movie was trying to get me to.

Clooney's a fine actor -- but I feel that he still hasn't been pushed out of a standard comfort zone (a zone that has come to include wackiness, in films like BURN AFTER READING, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS, etc.). When he's supposed to be crushed, I still end up feeling like his situation is as in INTOLERABLE CRUELTY: he's supposed to be pathetic and sad, but it's cute and funny, because it's hilarious that we're supposed to feel sorry for a purportedly heartbroken George Clooney.

My advice, George, if you're reading this, is to play a truly dark character -- an irredeemable character -- one that doesn't come out as the hero in the end despite our initial doubts (as in MICHAEL CLAYTON). That would be something to see.

OG Rating: B+

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