Monday, December 21, 2009


Anna Kendrick & George Clooney

There is a gap in Up in the Air between what the film wants to be and what it is. Not unlike Invictus, which is well intentioned but too stitched together to really work without major doses of unearned forgiveness on the part of its audience, Up in the Air seems destined to be loved by the people who see the movie for what it wants to be, but will prove a disappointment for those who see it for what it is.

Also like Invictus, the movie comes in distinct segments, which in this instance might be characterized as “before the wedding” & “after the wedding.” What comes before the wedding is smooth & elegant & charming & fun – Jason Reitman, whose last film was the breakout indie hit Juno, has three first-rate actors in George Clooney, Vera Farmiga & Anna Kendrick, engaging characters & the makings of a dynamite plot. But the wedding is supposed to be a transformational moment & instead it’s an embarrassing lump of the gooiest sentiment & cliché, excessively long because Reitman can’t figure how to direct his way out of it & not even faintly believable, after which the three characters move on to three very different places. The film is supposed to leave you with a sense of ambiguity & indeterminacy about each, but if you’ve stopped believing in them as characters, what you get are loose ends. Big letdown.

There are three real problems with the wedding scene, but the biggest one is that Anna Kendrick isn’t in it – we have arrived at a point in the film beyond which she has relatively little narrative use. The real confrontation here is between Clooney’s character, Ryan, a terminator who is brought as a consultant to fire people for major corporations, and Farmiga as Alex, a fellow road warrior who has become Ryan’s latest fuck buddy. She logs as many air miles as he does (350,000 per year), echoes his philosophy of traveling emotionally & physically light – “I’m just like you, just with a vagina,” she tells him –, and is also a member of the Mile High Club who is even more sexually adventurous than he. Kendrick is Natalie, the 23-year-old whiz kid whom the corporation has brought in to help cut costs by switching over from on-site terminations to outplacement via video terminal. She doesn’t have any reason to be at the wedding, that of Ryan’s kid sister, and so she’s not there. But from this moment forward, the extraneous nature of her character feels more & more out-of-place. Kendrick’s portrayal of the buttoned-down go-getter is one of the best things about this film, second only to Farmiga’s Alex, but as it moves toward a conclusion Natalie comes across less as a person & more as a plot device. Bad sign.

The second big problem is Ryan’s family, one sister who is older, one who is younger (Amy Morton & Melanie Lynskey respectively) – they don’t mesh onscreen at all, feeling like three actors who have just been introduced for the first time, which makes Ryan’s intervention at the wedding feel totally off-key. As an action, the intervention is also out of character for Ryan – you’re supposed to get that & then buy the idea that this process somehow transforms him. Unlike Juno, the anti-abortion movie with a heart, the transformation at the center of Up in the Air doesn’t work, I think, for the simplest of reasons: the director, Jason Reitman, doesn’t believe it. But he knows it’s the “appropriate” message, so he sets the gears in motion anyway. After all, investors are waiting. Big mistake.

Because this silly little intervention transforms Ryan, at least in theory, he looks at Alex differently. The problem is that she doesn’t reciprocate. She is the one character here who really knows what she is doing & what she wants. She really does want a fuck buddy & nothing more. “I’m a grown up,” she tells Ryan, who has already been compared to a 12-year-old by Natalie (who also makes a point of telling a friend that she doesn’t think of Ryan sexually “because he’s old”). Meanwhile Natalie comes to understand the consequences of her work & quits. All three are left having to figure out the future in ambiguous terms. But the only one with the tools to do so is Alex.

George Clooney is an interesting actor to watch – he’s one of the most generous thespians around, which means that his co-stars often come across looking their very best. Tilda Swinton won an Oscar for her work in Michael Clayton, Jennifer Lopez became a cross-over pheenom with Out of Sight, David Strathairn was nominated for an Oscar in Good Night & Good Luck, Tim Blake Nelson, a wonderful but underappreciated character actor, has never used to better advantage than in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Farmiga & Kendrick both benefit greatly from this, so much so that you almost forget that Clooney himself has a narrow range in what he does well on screeen. As the gad-about road warrior who only spends 45 days a year in his thoroughly anonymous apartment in Omaha, lectures on how to minimize commitment & prefers one-night stands to relationships, Clooney is totally believable. As the love-sick puppy who impulsively hops on a plane to surprise Alex at her home in Chicago, Clooney comes across more as Bruce Willis than, say, Tom Hanks.

Maybe if the wedding scene had been written effectively, or if they had cast an actor who could have handled Ryan both before & after well, the film could have worked. But they didn’t and it doesn’t. Imagine, if you will, what Juno might have looked like if the unfaithful husband were shown as the only character who really knew what he was doing. That’s Up in the Air.


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