Sunday, January 3, 2010
Avoiding Turbulence: Up in the Air
The reason that George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham loves living on the road is because it’s uncomplicated. His belongings fit neatly into his suitcase, which fits neatly inside the overhead compartment of an airplane, which takes him from one city to the next, where the Westin he checks into has a room exactly like the Westin he checked out of and the only signs of travel are his mounting frequent flyer miles (and perhaps the accent of the barista at the hotel Starbucks). If what you want to do is pass through life and avoid engaging with it, Bingham’s is a safe existence, and it’s delivered to us in an equally safe film. Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is enjoyable, to be sure – as cozy as a tightly made hotel bed – but its downfall is approaching its subject matter with the same aversion to commitment demonstrated by its main character. More than once, Reitman points us toward some challenging issues only to give them the fly-by.
Case in point: the film’s depiction of the modern job market. Up in the Air comes to us at a time in which the jobless rate in this country is around 10 percent. Bingham’s job, as a termination facilitator, is to give notice to those who are about to be unemployed. In short, he fires people for a living. Bingham does this with the solemn matter-of-factness of a doctor delivering grim news, taking pleasure only in the professionalism with which he fulfills his duty. On the other side of the table, often-unsuspecting workers react as if a trap door has opened up beneath their feet, their sense of security and sense of worth gone in an instant. Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons play two of the dozen-or-so terminated employees, but most of those who sit on the other side of the table from Clooney’s Bingham and his plucky trainee, Anna Kendrick’s Natalie Keener, are recently laid-off non-actors Reitman hired to speak from the heart. Their improvisational testimonials are trenchant reminders of a present bitter reality, but to what end? Does Reitman, who cowrote the screenplay with Sheldon Turner based on a novel by Walter Kim, mean to identify with these laid-off workers, or are they there merely to validate Bingham by revealing the calm and detached care with which he pilots these victims through their crises? Or, perhaps closer to the truth, is this simply a device meant to tug at our emotions, akin to any of the perfectly moody songs selected for the film’s mix-tape soundtrack?
It’s hard to say. Up in the Air has an air of resonance that, when you stop to think about it, doesn’t seem deserved. If there are ideas or themes in Up in the Air, they are fuzzy or contradictory, and not in an ambiguous you-figure-it-out sort of way but in a let’s-not-make-this-hurt-anymore-than-it-has-to fashion. What should I make of the fact that Bingham, and thus the film, openly admits that his inspirational speeches are merely techniques to get through the moment while at the same time some of the characters, and thus the film, seem to buy his con jobs? Repeatedly Up in the Air shows the crushing impact of losing a job, asking us to feel for the victims, while at the same time portraying the layoff as a sign that the individual in question is meant for something better. It’s a nice thought, one that fits into the empowerment campaigns of Oprah Winfrey and The Secret, but it’s conveniently disingenuous. Up in the Air gives the impression that the hardest part of being unemployed is getting the bad news.
All this attention over layoffs is meant to fold into the film’s primary theme: the importance of having a loving home to provide shelter from life’s storms. Er, at least, I think that’s film’s primary theme. Through the developing romantic relationship of Bingham and Vera Farmiga’s Alex Goran – and for that matter the developing friendship of Bingham and Natalie – Up in the Air makes a clear (and compelling) case that life is better when you share it with someone. The sequence in which Bingham and Alex go back to his high school is tremendous, revealing a remote man opening up and connecting. Touching stuff. Trouble is, Bingham wasn’t unhappy when all he had was his job. Ditto Alex. Furthermore, (spoiler warning for the rest of this sentence) Natalie isn’t portrayed as adrift when her relationship ends and she leaves Omaha for the career she always wanted, gladly leaving behind the career she settled for because of her relationship. That’s the thing: Up in the Air wants to ridicule Bingham’s relationships-equal-baggage mindset while at the same time hinting that many of us settle for unrewarding careers precisely because of the demands of those relationships it deems enriching and essential.
If all of this makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy Up in the Air, let me dispel that notion. It’s enchanting. If we’ve learned anything over Reitman’s three latest films, also including Thank You For Smoking and Juno, it’s that he has a gift for drawing outstanding, effortless performances from his actors. Clooney, Farmiga and Kendrick are marvelous, individually and collectively. Clooney doesn’t have great range, and he rarely disappears into his roles, but he has a knack for subtly modulating his skills – adjusting them like the levels on a stereo – so that this sharp guy in a suit seems somehow different from the last one (Michael Clayton) or the one before that (Johnny Ocean). Farmiga as Alex is warm, strong and mischievous – and she owes her body double a fruitcake for a scene in which Alex struts to a bed wearing only a tie around her waist (yowza!). Meanwhile, Kendrick is a scene-stealer as the ambitious Natalie, who is equal parts cocky and insecure – a contradiction Kendrick makes wholly convincing. Whenever those three are on the screen, Up in the Air has a classic Hollywood rhythm. When they aren’t, as in a clunky thrown-together subplot near the end involving the wedding of Bingham’s sister, it suffers, but only slightly. If you enjoy charm, warmth and a hint of poignancy (or just Clooney’s smile), Up in the Air might be your favorite picture of 2009.
Alas, Up in the Air is missing the kind of very-special-something that allows a film to endure. Memorable dialogue? Only Alex’s line about being just like Bingham, “only with a vagina,” stands out. Memorable shots? Only the one featuring Alex’s naked backside demands to be studied. Memorable characters? Sort of. But we’re really no closer to Bingham at the end of the film than we are the beginning, and he remains largely a mystery throughout. (For example: What’s with his backpack lectures? First he tells people to burn their backpacks, then he tells them not to burn their backpacks. So which is it? Who is he helping? How are they helped? Unlike Magnolia’s Frank T.J. Mackey, it’s hard to figure out what Bingham is selling and what tools he’s providing.) Memorable scenes? Not really, unless we’re counting those non-actors closing out the film by talking about the importance of family in testimonials that seem designed to manipulate the audience rather than further the film’s themes, whatever those themes are. As entertainment, Up in the Air is almost without fault. It’s lean, clean and calculating. As art, however, it fails to engage. It isn't here to settle down. It's just passing through.