Until its unsatisfying ending, Up In The Air is a slick, breezy Hollywood entertainment that deals with a man’s fear of emotional commitment, and the midlife crisis that it causes. It deals with that theme in familiar ways, but with knowing skill and some sophistication.
One reason that critics are overpraising it, however, is that its secondary theme is the heartless corporate downsizing of workers in a recession economy, which is what the main character, Ryan Bingham, does for a living. As played by George Clooney, he is a self-assured, free spirit who relishes a lifestyle with no close relationships and few possessions. The story of Ryan’s crisis revolves around the introduction of two women into his life: his sometime girlfriend, played seductively by Vera Famigla, who is also a professional job-terminator, and who meets him whenever their flight schedules permit; and a new co-worker, a young business school grad, played by Anna Kendrick, who shakes up his life by getting his company to fire workers by computer face-offs, thus eliminating his airport-hopping lifestyle.
It’s nice to look at Clooney and these beautiful actresses as they swing from terminals to hotel rooms and lounges, talking about their life choices, ambitions and, almost casually, their disappointments. But somehow it never rings true. As in Jason Reitman’s earlier film, Juno, we are meant to believe that people reveal their most intimate secrets and failures in pithy conversation with near-strangers over cocktails, or a little weed, and that their wounds are healed after some hot sex.
Reitman cast the film with good actors, including Amy Morton, as Clooney’s sister, and Danny McBride, as his future brother-in-law, but the performances seem unfinished, as if Reitman only wanted them to model their roles, like on the runway, instead of really act them. For instance, the scene where Clooney has to talk McBride out of cold feet before the wedding has dramatic promise, but never convinces. The stale platitudes that come out of their mouths destroy all credibility.
Worse, the characters of the female leads are hopelessly compromised in the script. The business school grad starts out like one of those Mensa dragons on network TV, the kind who send corrupt judges to their doom every week. Then, poof!, she is a helpless innocent who needs Clooney to tell her how to pack a suitcase. And the girlfriend character has a jaw-dropping secret, revealed near the end, that is unbelievable and, frankly, makes Clooney look a little stupid.
Some critics have praised the film because it contains clips of people who have actually been fired. They look into the camera and tell us what it felt like. While the critics take this as tough, refreshing social criticism, I had a different reaction. The film’s tone is so slick, with almost metronomic pacing, it made these real victims of downsizing look like actors performing from a script.
The heartless economy theme is window-dressing, really. At least twice Clooney is asked how he can live with himself, doing what he does for a living. But he never answers, and I think it’s because it doesn’t bother him. At the end of the film, when he deals with his crisis by, in effect, just accepting it, you realize that the crisis was only about growing old without a partner, and was not because he felt any remorse about his job.
But perhaps we’re all being too hard on Clooney. Sure, he got fat and grizzled for Syriana, and he deserved his Oscar, but his fans might not prefer him that way. I know I don’t. I like to see the sleek charmer, a little caddish, who gets wised up a little, but always winds up on his feet with a beautiful babe. But I think that Michael Clayton spoiled that. It was his best performance, and it looks like he ‘s found a new role model, so to speak. Now it seems he wants be a self-loathing sellout who has a crisis of conscience, thus driving him to save the world, as long as it doesn’t muss his hair.
Up In The Air fits the pattern, except for the saving the world part (maybe next time). But how can the guy stop if his fans, and producers, demand to see him this way?
I’ve got a solution. We should see the same film with another actor, giving us a double perspective. I suggest doing a remake of Up In The Air with Michael Moore in George Clooney’s role. We should see Michael Moore, fat, unshaven, with his baggy jeans and baseball cap, flying around the country firing people for profit. We’ll also see Moore put his arm around them, dry their tears and tell them to look into the camera for his next documentary. Best of all, we should see Michael Moore pick up hot corporate babes and have sex with them in luxury hotels!
I think this remake might reflect the real despair that’s filling our downsized country right now, even if it doesn’t score high on Jason Reitman’s glamor meter.