Saturday, December 19, 2009

Up in the Air

As much as I admire Jason Reitman's dedication to opening credits sequences, and as much as I enjoyed Thank You for Smoking and Juno (which I will defend from even the most impassioned backlash), I didn't like Up in the Air nearly as much as I had hoped or expected to. I didn't imagine it would be the best movie of the year, as awards bodies seem to be selling it, but I'd hoped for something a little less glib and Hollywood-ish, a little tarter than the fundamentally mushy story that Reitman sells the audience in the movie's third act.

Before that turn for the worse, though, I was with this bright, spry movie in its portrayal of the same sort of amoral slickster as the one at the heart of Thank You for Smoking. George Clooney's Ryan Bingham, professional corporate downsizer, is likeably soulless, someone who's rejected the sentimental conventions of society and discovered that it works pretty well for him. Even when Ryan hooks up with a fellow air-travel aficionado (Vera Farmiga) and takes on a cocky young protege (Anna Kendrick), it only humanizes him a little bit, like seeing Aaron Eckhart with Cameron Bright as his son in Smoking. He's real enough to identify with, but he hasn't been compromised.

And then, disappointingly, he is. All the snappy dialogue and sharp acting (from all three leads) kind of goes down the drain as Ryan learns important life lessons, discovers the value of human connections, experiences heartbreak, blah blah etc. It's the same rote sentiment of any number of Hollywood movies, only Reitman delivers it with more panache and subtlety, which in a weird way makes it almost worse. He's selling a line of bullshit, and he's putting it across like it's some profound truth, and I found that very irritating. I ended up liking Ryan even less by the end of the movie, which does end with more ambiguity than your typical rom-com but doesn't really allow for the possibility of Ryan going back to his solipsistic ways. I liked that Thank You for Smoking didn't feel the need to redeem its main character, and here Reitman seems to have succumbed to that pressure.

The patina of timeliness here is also a little disingenuous, not nearly as insightful as it's been made out to be. Making this movie during a serious economic downturn is a stroke of luck, really, and Reitman can seem like he's got his finger on the pulse of something when really this movie has nothing to say about the economy or corporations or anything like that. It's the familiar story of the self-centered asshole who learns to love, and as such it succeeds in a lot of ways. Its failure, though, is in succeeding at something so disappointingly conventional.

Now playing in limited release; opens wide December 23.


Pj Perez said...

Really? I felt more that Reitman bucked expectations in that third act by turning around everything we conventionally expected to go "right." He didn't get the girl. He didn't find "home." I actually thought the film, while enjoyable throughout, left us with a bleak message: Ultimately, we're all alone.

I mean, the crux of the film was driven home when Ryan told his brother-in-law-to-be that there's no point to it all. Life is pointless. Marriage is pointless. I think if we left the film seeing that Ryan was still the happy-go-lucky, worry-free jetsetter, there would have been no progress to the character, no development. Instead, at the end, from the surface it appears nothing has changed: Ryan's up in the air again. But inside, he's changed. Not because he's found love or meaning or any of the sort, but because he's realized what he perceived as freedom is truly just loneliness.

Of course, that's just my take. :)

Josh said...

Okay, so he didn't get that specific girl at that moment, or end up with a neatly tied up family life, but he clearly learned that in fact we are not all alone; that finding people to love and connect with is the most important thing of all (what his sister has with her husband).

I agree that leaving him the same way he started would have meant there was no development, but I would have liked to see him come into contact with all those events that push him toward realizing he's lonely and needs the things he's rejected, and then decide that in fact he doesn't need those things. I just get annoyed when the movie sets the character up to learn the most obvious lesson you can guess within two minutes of the story starting, and goes right down that exact road.