Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Up in the Air - A review

Note: Spoiler Alert

I had been very excited to see Up in the Air. The trailer showed a classic Hollywood recipe for success: George Clooney, a cynical, impossibly handsome vagabond who's bit of a prick, and passes cynical and adorably unashamed judgment on every facet of life until he has a change of heart, meets his perfect match, and is redeemed. Oh and there’s that side story involving his obsession with airports and a career that entails firing people in a terrible economy.

Side story, ha. If there’s anything that should be relegated to the side in this film, it is the seemingly soulless relationship between Ryan (Clooney) and his equally suave en-route squeeze, played by Vera Farmiga. And all that American Airlines' product placement. And a very predictable storyline involving Ryan's sister’s wedding to a surprisingly tame Danny McBride. Oh, Ryan is redeemed alright, that much was coming from the start. What I didn’t see coming was the movie’s incredibly sad, and real, portrayal of a thankless, cruel process of ego-stripping that is repeated daily, in massive numbers in the present American economy. The subject of corporate layoffs, that life-shattering gift of recession, grabs center stage in this film. Perhaps unwittingly on director Jason Reitman’s behalf, the multiple images of just-fired employees (two of them played by the wonderful Zach Galifianakis and J.K.Simmons) outshine every bit of funny dialogue shared by Clooney, Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. All others are simply props that ultimately fail to take away any of the grim ugliness from the movie’s chosen backdrop.

Yes, the director did try to soften the bleak ending by playing interview clips of three of the fired employees, in which they quietly concede that getting fired is not, after all, akin to death like one character stated earlier in the film. They each recount things that give them hope and comfort in their lives and save them from going over the edge like one woman actually does, jumping off a bridge. And then there is Ryan's change of heart, of course, as he recognizes the importance of being 'grounded'. However, for me at least, all these failed to replace one lasting image the movie left me with: a burly, macho-looking fifty eight year old man in Detroit, who sits in his chair unabashedly weeping for a good several minutes in front of the video conference that had just communicated to him that he was let go. The epitome of the broken American dream.

I did try to push away these images and focus on the movie’s actual protagonists, and care more about what happened to them in particular, but I failed. Mainly because the movie isn't long enough to develop its characters more sharply, to give us a little bit more history. In a short hour and a half there are too many different elements at work simultaneously--the firings and the airports and the frequent flier miles and the casual sex and all those teachable moments, first for Natalie and then for Ryan. Thankfully though, Reitman saves the movie from banality by delivering a twist at the end that nobody saw coming. The sheer cynicism that we associate with Ryan in the beginning of the movie hits us with a bang from another character. We only suspect it at the very end, so it’s brutal. So brutal in fact that it leaves absolutely no room to feel anything remotely resembling comfort or joy from the overall film.

It's safe to say then, that while giving us another very good--if not his best--film, Reitman doesn't deliver as many laughs as pensive thoughts in this one, compared to Juno and the brilliant Thank You for Smoking. In fact I feel sometimes the effort to keep things light is forced, especially around the middle. It hits the nail on the head in more ways than one, but Up in the Air is definitely not up for laughs.