Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Up In The Air

Having finally seen "Up In The Air," I've now caught a whopping two out of the 10 films most likely to be nominated for Best Picture of 2009 ("The Hurt Locker" was the other). If I go to see "Avatar" as planned at the end of next week, I'll actually be at 30% of the presumptive nominees - not that great, but still miles ahead of last year.

But anyway. I did finally see "Up In The Air," starring George Clooney and Vera Farmiga and directed by Jason Reitman. It's gotten quite a bit of awards buzz, although that seems to have cooled a bit in recent weeks. Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, whose job is to travel the country and fire people. We see a lot of scenes of him doing this: sitting in conference rooms with the corporately downsized, telling them about opportunity and wake-up calls and severance packages. He has a favorite line, some claptrap about building empires, and it sounds like he's trying to motivate his victims to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but really he's just trying to get them out of the room before they start throwing furniture. He's pretty good at his job, and he likes it. And he loves the rootless life that the job allows him. When we meet him, he's used to traveling some 300 days out of a year; when we see his "home" in Omaha, Nebraska, it's as sterile and anonymous as a hospital room, devoid of even a single personal touch, which makes perfect sense because he's never there.

Since the movie's less than two hours long, a lot of things don't really get explained, so we don't know what came first with Ryan Bingham: did he get the job because he likes to travel so much and doesn't like being tied down, or did he have the job first and discover that he likes being up in the air all the time? No way to tell--maybe that's covered in the source novel by Walter Kirn, but I'll probably never read it, because I've got no itch to revisit these characters.

Which is not to say it's a bad movie. Far from it. It's actually pretty good. The script is decent, quite well above average for a big Hollywood movie, and the direction is confident, even if Reitman clearly adores "The Graduate" way too much and throws in a few too many scenes scored to hip acoustic music. The acting is never less than solid. Clooney is a bona-fide movie star because, even though he basically plays the same character over and over (with the exception, possibly, of "Syriana"), he exudes an effortless charm and affability that makes for an acceptable audience surrogate in a lot of cases--his performances work not because they're stellar displays of acting technique, but rather because we want to be like him.

On one of his many trips, Ryan meets Vera Farmiga's Alex, another frequent traveler (her exact job is ambiguous, probably on purpose), and they bond over comparing travel-club memberships and frequent flier miles and the like, kind of like the way the guys in "Jaws" bonded over their various scars. Alex and Ryan indulge in some casual sex and then try to arrange their travel schedules to see each other again*. For a time, everything's cool in the world of Ryan Bingham--he's on the road as much as he wants, racking up his miles in the pursuit of the magical ten million goal, and he has a nice no-strings relationship going, and he looks like George Clooney.

Of course, a complication must arise to perforate all this perfection, and it does in the form of Anna Kendrick's young go-getter Natalie Keener, a hotshot recent college grad who just joined Clooney's firm and pitches the concept of going "glocal"--that is, basically, cutting the road trips and having the layoffs happen by teleconference from a single location. Immediately sniffing out the threat to his peripatetic existence, Bingham does into attack mode on Keener's initative, even taking her on the road himself to show her the advantages of axing someone in person.

I think the movie's single best touch was the way Reitman filmed Bingham's preparations for travel and movement through airports: like a soldier performing a drill, he knows exactly what to pack and how, and while seldom-flying yahoos like me are fumbling with belts and shoes and grumbling about security, Bingham knows exactly what to do at each step of the process and floats right through it all with ease and an enviable economy of movement, on his way to the next Medallion-or-whatever-level lounge and a nice glass of preflight Scotch.

When the Academy Award nominations are announced in just under a month, I'm pretty sure "Up In the Air" will get a nice handful of nods, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Clooney, director for Reitman, and probably Best Adapted Screenplay. I think it's going to lose to "Avatar" for Best Picture, but I was all but sure that "Saving Private Ryan" was going to win the top prize back in 1998 or whenever, so what do I know? Clooney is probably in the top two for Actor, although Jeff Bridges (pretty much considered the only other horse in the race) should win because he's never won in four previous nominations even though he's been around a lot longer than Clooney, and Clooney already won once (albeit for a supporting role). If Reitman wins director over Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker," I'm gonna lose it -- but that'll wait until another day. As for adapted screenplay, who cares, except the guys that win it.

This movie shouldn't win Best Picture because, even though it's pretty well made, when it's all said and done, there isn't anything very cinematic about it--it's a quality television production writ large, and it really just comes down to people talking in rooms. It doesn't have the heft that a Best Picture winner ought to have. It doesn't do anything to push the limits of film and show us something we've never really seen before. Now, I'm not saying that every movie needs to do those things, and even though the Best Picture award has been squandered on plenty of smaller movies in the past, this one just doesn't feel right. It's missing something, some key ingredient for a truly lasting impression. It's kind of like Ryan Bingham himself--the kind of guy you'd find yourself forgetting an hour after meeting him.

And so, it'll probably win.

A lot of hay has been made about the movie's topicality because it shows people getting laid off while the country is experiencing a generational high in unemployment. But I've been in corporate America for more than twelve years now myself, and layoffs have been a near-constant threat for at least nine of those years. There's not really any such thing as job security in America anymore. Things may be statistically worse now than in recent years, but don't believe the hype: "Up In the Air" is not really any more topical in 2009-10 than it might've been at the end of the last decade, or the decade before that.

Final verdict: a good if ultimately lightweight movie. Solid, but unspectacular. There's really nothing significant to dislike about "Up In The Air," but there's not really that much to love, either.


* I'm on the fence about the resolution of the Ryan-Alex arc because even though I was almost certain that she was hiding something (I'm not gonna say what, but it's not that hard to guess) pretty early on, I still had a fraction of a doubt right up until that something is revealed. I guess that's actually a tribute to the quality of Clooney's acting, because even in the face of almost certain disappointment, I was still kind of rooting for him to find happiness.

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