December 6, 2009

Up In The Air (12/06/2009)

Lettergrade: C

Up In The Air is a good movie, but a lot of critics are placing it atop their "Best of '09" lists, proclaiming it to be a film for the ages, and with that kind of praise I take some big exceptions. I hate to be the fun-buster here, but while it is a movie with no shortage of excellent actors and performances, the general storyline ultimately struck me as a little tired, and sort of emotionally "untrue" by the end. Again, I hate to bag on a picture that's generally pretty good and largely worth seeing, but I think that this one of those instances where a better-than-average movie is a victim of waaaay too much acclaim.

Let me tell you what I'm talking about: George Clooney works for a Nebraska based company that flies him around the country firing people who work for other companies when their bosses are too chicken-shit to do it themselves. He's on the road, living in hotels and airports, for all but a few days a year and that's just the way he likes it, as indicated by a series of witty voice-over montages. Anna Kendrick is a young upstart at Clooney's company who convinces the boss that firing people via Skype would be much more cost-effective than flying people like Clooney around all the time, which as you might imagine royally wanks Clooney's crank. The boss, played by Jason Bateman in full-on douche mode, asks the begrudging Clooney to take the new youngling on the road for a few months and show her the ropes (um... even though that won't happen anymore once they switch to her new plan?). In doing so, Bateman creates an unlikely comedic pairing in the grand tradition of Oscar and Felix and Tango and Cash, only without much of the comedy. Quickly, Kendrick learns that Clooney's job is highly personal and unpleasant - not nearly as much fun as when Donald Trump does it or when J. Jonah Jamieson repeatedly fires Peter Parker in the Spider-Man movies.

Mixed up in all the flying and firing is, of course, a chick, here played by Vera Farmiga. Formica is a fellow traveller whom Clooney picks up in an airport bar and begins a quasi romance that largely consists of brief liaisons whenever they happen to be in the same region. Is this the kind of love and companionship that Clooney has set up his whole life in order to avoid? Well... the movie has its pick of two standard plays on that front, and I can't say the one it chose was terribly surprising or even all that interesting. For that matter, I think you can say the same thing about what ultimately happens in the Anna Kendrick storyline too. Isn't it strange that this is a movie with such wonderfully handled personal moments but hardly any true surprises?

But back to the fact that Clooney's job consists of him firing people, which is my major beef with the movie. In the novel the film is based on, apparently, his character has a different job altogether. The "corporate downsize specialist" thing was an invention for the film, clearly because unemployment is so widespread these days, but also because of the fact that such a business is an industry at all is horrifying. Nevertheless, I don't think the movie actually does anything with Clooney's job other than attempt to wring a lot of cheap sympathy out of it. There are countless scenes of people being let go (sometimes they even come in the form of bizarre celebrity cameos like J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis!), and then later in the movie, there are several ham-fisted testimonies from real-life actual people who have been really, really fired recently!

Now... I've certainly been fired once or twice in my life, and while it does unquestionably suck, I will maintain that that aspect of Clooney's character has zilch to do with Clooney's problem... that he's constructed a nomadic life for himself that has left him without any real friendships or attachements. His job is a plot device to keep him on the road and cut off from anything permanent. It could be anything: He could be a regional office manager, he could be an insurance claims adjuster, he could even have the same job he had in Michael Clayton two years ago.

The thing that bothers me about the occupation they chose is again how they exploit the hell out of it. Director / co-writer Jason Reitman seems to be counting on the audience to be so distracted by the power and timeliness of how the movie deals with this devastating occurrence that they do not realize it is not germane to the rest of the movie at all. You could, perhaps, argue that because Clooney has to wall himself up in order to tell people they've lost their jobs, his chosen profession helps illustrate his desolate character, but I don't buy it. It's a bit unclear how we're supposed to feel about him or what he's doing. And I don't mean "good" unclear. He is played by George Clooney after-all, meaning that he comes off as charismatic and likable whether he's intended to be that way or not.

I watched At The Movies after seeing the flick, and frankly I was surprised that Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott kept referring to it as a romantic comedy. I think of it more as a drama punctuated with a little romance and a handful of good comedic moments. Maybe Paramount wants it described that way so people will not avoid it based on the subject material? Nevertheless, the classification kinda fits in a vague way, and sort of explains why several of the movie's characters fall into weird caricatures. Anna Kendrick's character is directly from the Tracy Flick mold, and contains shades of every buttoned up corporate attorney character from every movie made in the last 25 years, particularly the poor saps in Erin Brockovich who were there only to have Julia Roberts sass them. There's even the late-in-the-picture letter of recommendation ala The Devil Wears Prada which doesn't feel earned at all, really. The letter shows up as a surprise at a job interview... a logic minded viewer might realize that amazing psychic ability and/or CIA Intel would have been required in order for that to happen.

Again, the wacky celebrity cameos are distracting and seemingly more befitting of your standard bullshit Will Ferrel comedy than a movie like this (the omnipresent Danny McBride even shows up in a small role). In addition to McBride, Simmons and Galifianakis, Sam Elliot appears as an Airline captain late in the film, as the conclusion to a subplot that feels extraordinarily out of place and about which I had completely forgotten by the time it came to fruition. And as for the ultimate wrap-up for Clooney's character... well, it feels like the kind of behavior people only exhibit in movies. Maybe there are people like the three leads in this film out there, but they feel exaggerated and... well, fake.

And for that matter, it irks me a little that this is a movie peripherally about getting fired which has been made by the wealthy son of another wealthy filmmaker. If he has ever been let go from a job, I doubt it caused him nearly as much concern as it causes anyone who appears on screen. It feels like it was made by someone who understands that losing your job is one of the most horrible, demoralizing things that can happen, but who doesn't know what it really feels like.

One of weird tenants of giving decent criticism, I think, is that you've got to try to look at things in terms of what they aspire to be and put that up against what they actually achieve. After that, it's fair to say whether or not you liked it. Believe me, I understand how crazy it seems to be more enthusiastic about a movie like Wolverine than I am about this one, but Up In The Air aims a lot higher, meaning it should probably be held to a higher standard, which I am. In spite of my red-faced ranting here, it is still an interesting picture, and probably worth seeing. I know that it's on a direct path for a shit-load of Oscar nominations in the spring, but if it wins Best Picture or Screenplay, I might seriously lose it.

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