Friday, January 01, 2010

Movie Review: Up in the Air (2009)

Up in the Air is receiving rave reviews. George Clooney is winning renewed accolades as the cynical corporate traveler Ryan Bingham, Vera Famiga is up for a number of awards and director Jason Reitman, of Juno (2007) and Thank You for Smoking (2005) fame, has another quirky hit to add to his resume. The film has been nominated for six Golden Globes, won the Austin Film Critics award and Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards for Best Screenplay, National Board of Review awards for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor and Clooney garnered the coveted New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor, among a host of other nominations and awards. Critics love the film and it already has created serious Academy Award buzz. But is the film worthy of this collective encomium?

I would say no. It is a relatively successful send-up of corporate America today, the alienation and emptiness of contemporary society, the heartlessness of technology gone wild and the true human costs of layoffs and corporate downsizing. Yet it does so from too safe a distance and with a muted humor and cynical ending that seems to undermine the ideological force of the whole film. It has a number of funny moments, intermingled with a lot of corny jokes and a saccharine love story that is too intent on reinforcing the theme of the dehumanizing effects of corporate profit-seeking to really inspire my interest. The people laid off in the film, with a few exceptions, are real people who have recently lost their jobs and who were recruited through the classifieds and told to treat the camera like those who just fired them. This leads to some compelling and funny moments, but in other cases the heaviness of these moments seems ill-advised given the failure of any of the main characters to actually change in any meaningful way. When we learn that one woman who threatens killing herself in fact does so, the heartless boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) is more worried about the legal ramifications than the dead women. Bateman does do a wonderful job as a detached boss, intent on embodying the worst excesses or corporate America today. These moments do deconstruct how the corporation has dehumanized us and led the whole of society to lose its way, but for me the film suffers from a dullness that undermines the otherwise effective morale.

In fact the plot, based on the novel by Walter Kim, seems to revolve more around the dehumanizing nature of firing by technology in comparison to the personal touch of sending someone like corporate downsizer and empty shell Bingham to do the job. The approach is based on leading these workers to see their termination as the opportunity to lead better lives (in case we miss the point, the discussions between Bingham and the other workers at makes it clear that their services are about limiting backlash to the companies doing the firing). Bingham travels 290 days doing this job, living in hotels and eschewing any meaningful personal relationships. His apartment is without any personality, he is alienated from his family (until he saves his sister’s wedding) and his only relationships appear to be the superficial ones that one has with a bartender, co-worker or one-night stand. That is until he meets Alex Goran (Vera Famiga) who he quickly develops feelings for. She seems to be pushing him toward something more meaningful, just as his livelihood is jeopardized by newcomer Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), fresh out of the Ivy League and in some ways even more heartless than Bingham.

The two go out on the road so he can teach her the ropes of firing others effectively and to challenge her not to implement the telecommunication technology she wants to use to replace Clooney and the other company agents. Along the way, she pushes Clooney to contemplate how meaningless his life is – including the rather heavy-handed “What’s in Your Backpack” lectures he occasionally gives to convince others to eliminate “meaningless” personal relationships from their lives. As the story unfolds, Natalie and Ryan, of course, grow as human beings, though both suffer losses and heartbreak along the way (I don’t want to give away too much). In the end, the question is how much have they really grown? Particularly for Bingham, has he really found a way to reconnect with the world and find meaning in his life? Many will assume that he has and that the film is funnier and more meaningful than I found it. I found Clooney substantially more compelling in Michael Clayton (2007), and have rarely found Famiga to be much more than a pretty, saturnine actress with little personality or charm. Anna Kendrick certainly shines and Bateman does a wonderful reprise of his Michael Bluth character from “Arrested Development,” though here without a pesky heart to stand in the way of his affectless humor.

It seems at some level as if Reitman lost his will in the end, and decided to find some humanity in this inhumane world, though without the happy ending the audience is rooting for. In his desire to avoid the formulaic we are left cold, not only from the unsatisfying denouement, but from actors who, for all their accolades, seem to give performances that are too muted, too uninspired, too, well, alienating in their individual alienation. Clooney has developed the power to carry a film on his charm and charisma alone, but here it fails as he attempts to crawl into the body of his converse – a man who protects himself from the world by literally flying above us at a safe altitude. Just like his dank, sterile apartment, the film suffers from too dour a view of humanity. You might find it as some surprise that I would still recommend the film, but I do. It is worth a viewing for the underlying message and to watch huge ambition confront the challenges of serious critique within the Hollywood formula. But it is, in many ways, a lovely failure to observe. (B+)

1 comment:

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