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Up in the Air (2009)

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A couple years ago, Will Smith starred in a film adaptation of the Richard Matheson novella, I Am Legend. The movie was a slick bastardization of the ideas—and point—of the source material, and nothing in its bloated, uninteresting 101 minutes could compare to the first 10 pages of the book on which it was based. Up in the Air, the new Jason Reitman film based on Walter Kirn’s book is not quite as awful, but it did give me flashbacks.

In the movie, George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man who travels so much for his job that he’s on the cusp of earning 10 million frequent-flyer miles; it’s a singular goal in a life marked by an utter lack of dreams or human connections. Ryan zigzags all across America, acting as the soothing hatchet man for downsizing companies. One day, his boss (Jason Bateman) informs him that his company is looking to cut travel costs by firing people via a new teleconferencing system developed by Natalie (Anna Kendrick), an ambitious, young college grad. Ryan takes to the air one last time to show Natalie the ropes, insisting that his line of work requires a more personal touch than an LCD screen can offer.

There’s a lot of “Best Picture” buzz surrounding this movie, and I honestly don’t get it.

Okay, I kinda do.

Unfortunately, all of the hype seems to have been built around the film’s ingredients rather than what they ultimately combine to make. You have Jason Reitman at the helm, who gave us the inexplicably adored Juno and Thank You For Smoking; you have George Clooney, who—love him or hate him—has used his mega-millionaire icon status to pursue only interesting projects (in other words, you won’t be seeing him in Another Fine Day); lastly, you have one of the most topical films in memory: jobs are disappearing quicker than Amelia from the multiplex. Building a film around the people doing the canning is a great idea—if properly executed; Up in the Air is not.

The cast is problem number one. I’m a big fan of George Clooney, but he brings too much of his Danny Ocean character to Ryan Bingham. Bingham is suave and great at his job, but instead of the darkness that we’re supposed to see under the wisecracking facade, we see only more smirking. I kept thinking of the weight in Clooney’s eyes and shoulders that was evident throughout Syriana, and wishing he’d brought a quarter of that power to this role.

Of greater concern is Anna Kendrick as Natalie. She plays an early-twenties version of Lilith from Cheers: all buttoned-up seriousness, but with the eager naïveté of a puppy dog. It’s a fine bit for a sitcom, but when we’re asked to take her seriously for the better part of two hours, it becomes an issue. Take, for example, the scene in which she asks Ryan if he would ever consider getting married. When he says “no”, she acts as like a Vulcan android that’s just blown a circuit; am I really supposed to believe that an educated woman who came of age in the last two decades has never encountered someone who doesn’t think marriage is right for them?

I understand that these critiques have more to do with the screenplay than the actors, but Up in the Air is the perfect storm of bad choices on both the writers’ and performers’ parts. The script is a mess; on the one hand it’s a funny road picture in the vain of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, but at the same time it aspires to the gravitas of a socially relevant portrait of the economic disaster. It takes a very deft touch to have it both ways, and Jason Reitman is about as ham-handed as they come.

It’s cute that he decided to insert real laid-off employees into his movie to give heart-felt testimonials during the firing scenes, but Reitman failed to learn Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino lesson from last year: for the most part, regular people don’t know how to fucking act. And when you plop them into a movie of established actors, the contrast is embarrassing to watch. Look no further than J.K. Simmons, who shines in one of only three decent scenes in the film. He plays a family man who gets the axe, and his exchange with Clooney gives a glimpse of the humanity and fine filmmaking that Up in the Air should have possessed; when we cut back to the non-actors, the movie takes on the air of a corporate training video.

And what of the economic crisis theme? Up in the Air shows us plenty of desolate buildings and jittery nerves in conference rooms, but it doesn’t say anything about how current events affect its characters. The downturn is simply a backdrop against which to paint a clichéd lost-man portrait. Two key indicators of this are late-film developments that defy plausibility and undercut the supposed theme:

1. One of the women that Ryan and Natalie let go early in the film kills herself by jumping off a bridge; this is telegraphed (sloppily) in her exit interview. It pops up as a story point in the last fifteen minutes, and is brushed aside with a few lines of dialogue as if it would not be a big deal in real life. Natalie quits her job and Ryan lies to his boss about having seen signs of a problem with the victim; my understanding of the real world is that there would be lawsuits and inquiries, possibly suspensions. But, no, the dead woman is just a catalyst for...

2. Natalie getting a new job right off the bat. Her new employer receives a letter of recommendation from Ryan that testifies to all the lessons she’s learned on the road, and how great a catch she is for any business, etc. It’s unclear what kind of job she gets, or whether or not she was at all scared of not finding work in the current climate. We just see her sit down for a brief interview and walk away with a new paycheck and 401(k).

I really dislike Up in the Air; which is a shame because I was truly looking forward to it. I would still love to see a serious examination of people whose job it is to put other people out of work; by “serious”, I don’t mean dour—just something that doesn’t feel like its screenplay was revised by the head writer of Two and a Half Men.

The only thing this film did right was to compel me to pick up Walter Kirn’s novel; I’ve finished the first chapter and, sure enough, its first 11 pages are far more effective than the whole movie based on it.

Note: For those of you that have seen the movie, you’ll notice I left out the two bulky sub-plots involving Ryan’s affair with a fellow frequent traveler and his trip home to attend his sister’s wedding. The reason is simple: they add nothing to the movie except running time (unless you’ve never seen another movie about family and/or the road). The characters involved in these distractions are as cardboard as the gimmick-y cut-outs Ryan photographs in front of the places he travels; particularly offensive is Danny McBride, as the brother-in-law-to-be, who plays exactly the douchebag one might expect him to play in a conventional comedy; the fact that he is not elevated above archetype here is a good indication of how dumb the movie considers its audience (another credibility issue: he gets cold feet on his wedding day because he’s never—until the big day—thought about what getting married actually means; there may be people out there that this happens to, but they deserve neither sympathy nor significant screen time in a movie made for adults).

Additional Note: I should mention that Up in the Air has one of the best closing scenes I’ve seen; it involves Sam Elliott as an airline pilot who congratulates Ryan on earning ten million miles. The look on Ryan’s face when the pilot asks where he’s from—and Ryan’s answer—is just perfect. The problem is, that scene comes about ten minutes before the end; there is no finer example of Jason Reitman’s ineptitude as a storyteller than the misplacement of this gem of a capper. Instead, we’re treated to a lingering, silent shot of clouds that even a C- film student would decry as pretentious.