Saturday, December 26, 2009

"Up in the Air"

I write about my efforts to re-invent myself, but I admit that, once in a while, I wonder at the fate of these efforts if I ever lost my job. It is easier to make changes, move in new directions, and have the time to be creative if one is subsidized, either by a pay check, or a patron. Unless I’m willing to risk starvation, or death by exposure, for the sake of art (noble but impractical), the tasks of basic survival would naturally supersede loftier pursuits, if my source of income disappeared. Although I am fairly sure I am secure in my job at the College where I work, these are unpredictable times; and neither competence (to say nothing of excellence) nor loyalty is enough when the bottom line of a company, and its financial officers, are at stake.  What would I do?  Would I follow my dreams?  Would the world find those dreams valuable enough to sustain my life?

I entertained these thoughts as I watched Jason Reitman’s slick and surprisingly well-received film, “Up in the Air”. Maybe I wanted the film to provide answers, (but that is a lot to ask from any movie).  This is a great-looking and great-sounding film, likeable, entertaining…”palatable”. It’s smooth and goes down easy, and promises something profound; and while you're watching anyway, you might not mind that its focus is misplaced and that, in the end, it’s something of a cheat.

George Clooney is fine as Brian, a man that constantly travels for a firm whose business is to terminate employees at its client companies. Brian is skilled at personally bringing these emotional and vulnerable employees through the process, showing "empathy", giving them the requisite packet, and counseling them to return to the dreams they once had, before they decided to give them up for the paychecks at their current (former) jobs. “Anyone who has ever built an empire sat where you are now.” This is attractive advice and Brian gently pulls it off. Yet we wait for Brian to find himself in the same position as his hapless charges….but the film misses this opportunity.

Brian’s love of travel is meant to fill emptiness in his personal life. He lives in a sterile apartment, takes pride in his expertise in navigating airport security, is completely at home among the “artificial light” of airports and hotel lounges, and admits that he is not the type to find his world grind to a halt while gazing into the eyes of a romantic partner. He does find a comfortable sexual liaison with a woman, Alex (Vera Farmiga) who also travels, although we never really learn what she does, and what allows her to be on the road so often. The plot twist involving her character, and Clooney’s reaction to it, stretch credibility as much as Clooney’s finding an immediate parking spot on a Chicago side street.

There's a subplot involving Clooney’s estrangement from his family of origin, the wedding of his sister, and his attendance at that event with Alex. He has pangs of guilt, feels left out, and is asked to use his negotiating skill to coach the reluctant groom. This segment of the movie rang particularly false---this whole concept was done extremely well last year in “Last Chance Harvey”---and it could have been deleted to improve the momentum of the film.

The opportunity for Clooney’s character to “empty his backpack” (he conducts dreary motivational talks on the side) almost arrives, when Brian is introduced by his smarmy boss (Jason Bateman) to a new young female employee (Anna Kendrick), who has created the technology to fire people by videoconference, and has coined the gag-inducing term “glocal” (make the global local). Clooney is about to be grounded, but instead, he is charged with showing this girl the ropes--on the road. So rather than exploring Brian’s distaste for what he’s doing, the film sets up a conflict between personal interaction and technology, and the movie uses the terminated employees as plot devices, and rarely invites us to care about their fates.

I was especially disappointed that the death of one of these employees was a setup for Clooney’s acts of redemption, none of which involved him offering solace to the family of the deceased.

Clooney’s character’s love of travel provides many product placements for Hyatt Hotels and American Airlines (whose slogan “we appreciate your loyalty” appears constantly….like a Welcome Home from some form of surrogate family). It almost seems that the movie is a subliminal commercial for the travel industry, and regardless of the distasteful job Brian does, and the hard lessons we have seen him learn on the road, there would be no way that that he could really hang up his wings; the corporate sponsors (I assume) of this movie would never allow it!

Clooney has engaged us so well that by the end of the picture we want to see him free himself, from his bleak life, from his romatic disappointments.  It is possible that Clooney's charm and looks work against his portrayal as the character is written. A less charismatic actor might have been more believable as an isolated man who has few dreams apart from earning a million air miles.

The movie deserves credit for introducing some worthy themes to consider outside of the theater: the alienation we feel due to lack of real human interaction in favor of digital relationships; the anxiety in today’s workplace, and how our economy cannot absorb or accommodate the dreams of everyone; how we can free ourselves from the things that weigh us down in life, and what is worth keeping; the pleasures and perils of marriage and mature romantic relationships. Yet there is not a complete follow-through. Instead, we have a pleasant-enough story, an intriguing central character, and some well-played supporting roles, none of whom are challenged to follow their dreams after losing everything.

Visually the movie is terrific. Aerial shots were achieved with great difficulty. Motifs abound, such as world globes, maps, and a simple floor lamp, appearing everywhere Brian does, suggesting he is at home everywhere. I admired the quick and creative editing, which loosened up whenever the story entered more personal territory, then quickened again when Clooney’s smooth exterior is threatened. The actors portraying the fired workers were also fabulous in thankless roles. They gave the film an edge and a realism that made me reluctant sometimes to give myself over to the main story.

The sound and sound editing are also unusually crisp, and the music is well chosen, especially a song over the end credits that was sent to Jason Reitman on cassette tape by a man out of work. And the opening, bluesy rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” was great, although its almost sly tone seemed out of place, until the ironic finale.

A lot of critics, and friends, have enjoyed this film. It is already a front runner for a slew of awards. Perhaps, like me, viewers are tired of being pummeled by sequels, comic book characters, senseless depictions of cruelty, and pre-adolescent humor. In comparison, “Up in the Air” is a mature and thoughtful work…but it seemed, like its character, ultimately, bogged down by its ideals instead of liberated by them. I wished, given its timely subject matter, that it managed to be great.

1 comment:

  1. I knew as soon as I saw the previews for this movie that it was a winner and I had to see it. There's just something about Clooney and his impish grin and smarmy personality that, placed in the right vehicle, are big-screen magic. After reading your review, I am only more excited about checking it out and observing the subtle nuances you have so deftly pointed out. Great post, Tom!