Monday, February 1, 2010

Review of Up in the Air

Pictured is New Jersey's very own Vera Farmiga, perhaps the one good reason you should watch Up in the Air. Listed below is why you really shouldn't.

This review originally appeared in ICON and is reprinted with the loving permission of Trina Robba.


It happens every year: A movie seduces critics, moviegoers, and everyone else but leaves me cold. In 2009, I encountered three: The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, Lee Daniels' Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, and now Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, starring George Clooney.

The last film, which should make headlines after Oscar nominations are announced Feb. 2, revolves around these troubled times. It's the kind of film that oozes relevance and a deeper meaning—if a filmmaker commits to that agenda. Reitman doesn't. He's never entirely sure whether he wants to offer a character sketch or a movie about the big world. A movie for our times, a description I've heard in commercials for Up in the Air, can't be wishy-washy even if we are.

Ryan Bingham's job is to relieve people of theirs. For over 300 days a year, Ryan (Clooney) crisscrosses the country, doing the dirty work of CEOs. His life is sparse and efficient. There's no wasted space, no superfluous motions. It should come as no surprise that he never sees his family—his reaction to his sister's marriage ranges from indifference to annoyed—or has a meaningful relationship. It can't fit in his suitcase.

His organized little world gets a major jolt when his young go-getter colleague, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), unveils a plan to modernize their firm that the higher-ups love. No more will Ryan and his co-workers fly across the country, a costly endeavor that has allowed Ryan to proudly amass nearly 10 million airline miles. Firings will now be done via teleconference from the home office in Omaha to wherever the recession has claimed its next victims, with a headset-wearing "transition specialist" doing the dismissing.

It's a fitting idea from Natalie, who sounds like a corporate mission statement, but Ryan hates it, namely because what he does can't be simplified via technology. There's a technique involved, something that Natalie can't comprehend. Two side notes: Ryan hates being home; his identity is in the air. Being grounded also eliminates his time with amorous travel buddy Alex (the excellent Vera Farmiga). Ryan and Natalie's boss (Jason Bateman) has a unifying solution: Ryan will take Natalie on the road to show her what he does.

The trip, peppered with visits to bankrupt companies and airport lounges, turns out to be an eye-opener for both. Natalie learns that the people she wants to use as guinea pigs for her career advancement have feelings, and that her pre-planned course for success is a joke. Thanks to Alex, Ryan learns the value of companionship, of having someone in your corner. And he realizes this while attending his sister's Pabst blue-collar wedding, which undoubtedly satisfies his multi-tasking streak. Whether Natalie and Ryan can endure these changes is a different story.

Up in the Air does offer enough internal crises regarding Ryan and Natalie to keep the movie involving, but Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner never align this development with the tumultuous world the characters navigate, one where personal connections are being replaced by technological convenience and the bottom line. The groundwork for a movie with a larger message is begun and we get little tastes: empty offices, tearful employees, etc. But it's used as a garnish, a quick and dirty way to add importance to a story about a corporate drone searching for himself. By giving this tumultuous world idea short shrift, Reitman confesses that it's not that important. It's scared filmmaking: You either make your grand statement on the world, or you save the soapbox for another time. Hedging your bets, hoping that people will confuse flashes of meaning for meaningful, is remarkably condescending.

Ryan has built his career telling people that they've become irrelevant. Now he's facing the same fate, which he has escaped by traveling non-stop. His time is up. That's great, but Turner and Reitman never flesh out Ryan's profile. We never learn how Ryan got to thrive on solitude, and how his family became an inconvenience. What causes a man to become so content living out of a suitcase that he gives lectures on the subject? One could say that Ryan's blank personal history works because the movie involves him opening up, but the evolution is pointless if we have no idea where he started.

That we know Alex better than Ryan highlights the need for two distinct personas to survive in the business world. Still, I couldn't help but wonder if she could have lent one to Ryan. Every strong move here is met with a weaker one, like stocking the supporting cast with Bateman, J.K. Simmons, and Danny McBride so they can play the same old roles. It's fitting that the grand ideas espoused by Up in the Air are tripped up by smaller details, ones that Oscar voters will blithely ignore. [R]


Kimberly said...

Damn Pete! Awesome review. But I still want to see it. Something about Clooney....

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this movie has been much discussed on several blogs I really like it and will always have critics all are!