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.


Richard Bellamy said...

"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." Well said!

Your observation about the non-actor talking heads at the end of the movie meshes with my thoughts. I felt jarred by them because I felt, as you do, that they were manipulative. Besides, if you ask a non-actor to express his feelings about losing his job, how much of what he says is sincere and how much of it is "acting," non-professional acting, but acting just the same.

I'm with you on this one. I was entertained. I loved the character of Natalie Keener. But it's not a film that has stayed with me and kept me thinking.

The Film Doctor said...

Excellent review, but I find the movie resonates for me because of the way it balances Ryan's Huck Finn-like need to "light out for the territory" with the real drama of those laid off. If Reitman had further explored the fired employees' stories, then the movie would have drowned in pathos. As it is, Reitman keeps both sides of his story nicely juggled in the air, so to speak. I was also impressed with much of his camera work. He's very good at finding images to convey ideas, such as the scene in which Natalie sits in room full of abandoned business chairs, or the many examples of Ryan framed within a frame (with the window of a jet, or the window of his largely abandoned apartment) to show his delusional isolation. The basic problem with the wedding subplot is the lack of preparation for it. It's hard to feel for characters thrust at us at the last second, and the wedding itself becomes some sort of generic family union scene.

Sam Juliano said...

This is definitely an excellent review, Film Dr. is quite right, but I can't agree with my esteemed friend, or I'll just say this fluffy confection, which reeks of multiplex populism, did not have any lasting resonance, though as you note here in your review there are a number of accomplished components, lines of dialogue an dperformances. The sum of its parts do not add up to the whole for me.

Unknown said...

It was that ending montage with the unemployed people spouting family values platitudes that quite irritated me about this movie. It felt like Reitman was selling a message rather than developing it.

What also bugged me was that it suggested Ryan's lifestyle doomed him, as if having a wife and kids was the only way to a fulfilling life. It would have been refreshing for a movie in this day and age to accept that someone lives a non-traditional lifestyle that can be satisfying.

Considering the situation with both Ryan's sisters, as well as discovering who Alex really was, the movie unintentionally makes a strong argument that traditional lifestyles do not necessarily bring happiness. When Alex tells Ryan to grow up at the end, I kept thinking to myself that she was the one who needed to grow up.

It felt like the movie was going to reach a certain conclusion, but then inserted another safer message so that traditional ideas would remain unthreatened. That may be what bothers me most about Reitman's films. His movies try so hard to be hip and clever, but his messages are trite relics from the Reagan era.

Scott Nye said...

I didn't see the film's pro-relationship message as contradictory to Natalie's doomed career sacrifice or the marital strife on the sidelines; rather, I think it showed that it's not all sunshine and rainbows just because you found somebody to connect with, but it's worth the work, if not just the courage to take that first step. If nothing else, you've gotta give it up for the practicality of it all - generally, the happiest moments of your life are spent with other people. So why not find a way to keep that rolling?

As for memorable scenes, I'll take Ryan and Alex's meet-cute any day, along with the "fire me" scene and the scene where they console Natalie. If Hawks was right and a good movie is three great scenes and no bad ones, UP IN THE AIR makes the grade, and I hardly mind Reitman's modest aims.

Consequently, great shots are a little harder to come by - obviously the one they made the poster out of would qualify, and although it was heavy-handed, I loved the Fellini-esque poetry of the shot of Ryan walking by couples embracing at the airport.

I do agree that the film tries a little too hard to get us to buy into Ryan's philosophy that unemployment is the first step to a new frontier, but the only time he really sells that is in the J.K. Simmons scene. Galifianakis seems to buy it in the way most people will take any sign of hope they can in a hopeless circumstance, with Reitman and Clooney underscoring how fake it all is. And no one else in the film is having any of it at all.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Some replies ...

FilmDr provides good observations about Reitman's compositions that I admit I missed (though I often miss that stuff on first viewing and pick it up the second time around). But as for Bingham's "delusional isolation," that leads me through Steven's comment on my way to replying to Scott ...

Park of what irks me about Up in the Air is that it just decides that, to use Scott's words, "the happiest moments of your life are spent with other people." Why? I suppose because it fits a kind of Rockwellian ideal, not to mention the standard old-fashioned Hollywood formula. I don't object to that idea itself, because -- sometimes loner that I can be -- I generally agree with it. What befuddles me though is that the film offers so much evidence to the contrary ...


* Bingham is perfectly happy at the beginning of the film when he's on his own.

* Natalie, we learn, is only in her job because she moved there for a relationship. And when she moves on, the film suggests she's doing the right thing.

* Alex turns out to be in an unhappy relationship, or so we must presume because she flees from it to be in a faux relationship with Bingham. And, yes, Bingham connects with this faux Alex and finds happiness, but it only leads to pain.

* Bingham's older sister is going through a trial separation.

* Bingham's younger sister nearly has her marriage fall apart on her wedding day. The only reason it goes on is because Bingham cons a guy he doesn't know into believing in something that he himself doesn't believe in.

* J.K. Simmons' character seems to have settled for a career he doesn't give a crap about -- so much so that he's almost thankful to be laid off in the end -- because he's stayed there to provide for his family.

Put it all together and Bingham's "I'm good" happiness doesn't seem any more delusional -- if delusional at all -- than those around him who are engaged in relationships. This is contradictory, but that's not my complaint so much as it's this: Up in the Air sells the happiness-is-being-with-other-people message as if it's a hard scientific truth, even while presenting us with evidence to the contrary. It present this idea as if it cannot be argued, and thus seems almost oblivious to its own counter arguments.

Jason Bellamy said...

Further, while I'm here ...

Can anyone provide an explanation of Bingham's backpack lectures? The first time we hear it, he tells people to load it up with their possessions. It's a heavy backpack, he says. Burn it, he tells them. The next time we hear it, he tells people to load their backpacks with their relationships. It's a heavy backpack, he says. But, don't worry, he says, they don't have to burn their backpacks.

So, between these two 5-minute samplings, how does the rest of his seminar go? Is he really invited to speak to tell people 'stuff is heavy'? Is that it? His seminar should be about providing solutions to problems, not pointing them out, right? But the first solution is, burn it, and the second solution is, don't burn it. I don't get it.

To me this is a half-thought device. Yes, yes, I understand how it works: early on, Bingham would burn his backpack, even if it was full of his relationships. By the end, no, he doesn't want to burn his backpack. It shows Bingham's evolution, and it sounds profound ... so long as we only see his speeches in 5-minute glimpses. But I couldn't begin to tell you what he says in between.

Though I've just ranted again, these are quibbles ... things that keep the film from really moving me. I did enjoy Up in the Air. I did. But as soon as I connected with it, when I tried to get to the heart of why I connected with it, I couldn't come up with satisfactory answers.

But to circle back to Scott's comment: Does the film have any "bad" scenes? Not really. (Though the conseling scene in the classroom is really close.)

Scott Nye said...

First, I would argue that, even with the pain it caused him, Ryan must have found some sort of happiness with Alex that he had no personal concept of before. Otherwise, how does one explain the regret and sadness his final voiceover monologue carries?

I'm not sure I would say Alex is in an unhappy relationship. I wouldn't say it's happy, either, I just don't think the film believes it one way or the other, just that she feels free on the road and needs some sort of escape.

And yeah, the backpack scenes come very close to not working, but they have a sort of compelling quality that prevents me from rejecting them outright. I sort of get that Ryan's seminars are about how to streamline your life and become more successful (which doesn't mean I know exactly what he says that whole time, but I'm no speechwriter either).

I don't think he ever told people to burn their relationship backpack (as he says when we see that part, "don't worry, you don't have to burn THIS one," implying he already had them burn the possession one), mostly because no one would ever hire him to say that, but I have a hard time believing he could reach that many people with a message about abandoning your friends and, potentially, family. Sure there'll be a few who say, "damn straight," but that's hardly something to hit the lecture circuit with. Or maybe I really don't understand corporate America.

As for bad scenes, the consoling scene in the classroom worked for me, but probably not the way Reitman intended - Ryan was absolutely conning Jim, and I absolutely believe Jim would fall for it.

The closest we get to a bad scene is that horrible montage at the end of the "real fired people" (I don't doubt that they are as Reitman presents them, I just needed a group title) spelling out the film's message, which I felt up to then was handled subtly enough that many of the aforementioned contradictions could actually serve as complications (and I still feel they do, but that montage makes it a tougher sell).

I say "the closest" because, in spite of the modern montage-filled cinema, it's really not a scene at all and has absolutely no effect on any of the characters, which is what Reitman should've been concerned about in the first place.

Once again though...loved the movie. Even if it does end up a little empty (and I'm not yet convinced it does), it's damn compelling stuff.

Jason Bellamy said...

Scott ... Thanks for the further thoughts. I'm certainly not trying to argue you out of your enjoyment for the movie. Just simply trying to articulate why looking deeper into the movie made me feel that it's kind of smoke and mirrors. At this point, between the concerns I raise in my review and the two long comments I've left here, the negative things I've said about the film outnumber the positives. But that's not really indicative of my feelings overall, which are mostly positive, albeit with some reservations that keep me from connecting fully. Perhaps my frustration comes from feeling that this film is so-close to being something wholly satisfying without quite getting there.

Scott Nye said...

Oh, dude, I know, I was more speaking to a natural occurrence that happens from time to time when you dive into films you like and come up empty. Can be terribly disappointing.

And yeah, I've written mostly negative reviews about movies I've liked before, too. Weird how that happens.

Daniel said...

From first sentence to last comment this appears like a mirrored post from my review - which is great. Although I thought you were a little more positive on this film a couple weeks ago.

In any case I agree with all of the points you make about the contradictory messages outlined throughout, and I'm shocked so many critics have named it the best of the year with a bullet. Well maybe not shocked, but confused.

I guess it all depends on what you're looking for. Half of the people are happy enough with the enjoyment that we got from watching it, while the other half were hoping for a little more substance under the starry sheen.

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