Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Up in the Air

"Passing Over"

Down in the lower right hand corner of this review (and every review on LNTAM) there's a space for meta-data to help readers find similar personnel, year of release, director, major stars—basically general stuff.

But I also like to put the genre of where the film would fit, say, at the video store—nothing too specific.
Jason Reitman's new film "Up in the Air" is the first one to have me stumped. I lean towards "drama," but it's too clever and funny to meet that description. It's not a "comedy" as it deals with pain and contemporary issues that most comedies (most modern comedies, at least) steer clear of—although it's tempting to say that it's a "Judd Apatow comedy" for adults, taking on his basic "gowing up" arc, but with a more mature, melancholy overtone. Yet it made me laugh out loud fairly regularly. And it made me think of what a sorry mess we're in.

Ryan Bingham (
George Clooney) is a corporate hit-man for hire. His company (run by a tight-smiled cut-throat Jason Bateman) provides a termination service for struggling companies. Bingham flies to the home-offices and fires the people the weasley exec's are too cowardly to break the news to face-to-face. And business is booming.

"This is the biggest financial melt-down in our nation's history" crows Bateman's CEO. "This is our moment." And to make the most of it, he's hired a new 23 year old tyro named Natalie Keener
Anna Kendrick, who gets perpetually lost in the lunch-room in the "Twilight" movies*), who hopes to streamline the down-sizing process by doing it over the internet, rather than in person.

This throws the well-managed world of Bingham into a tizzy. No more frequent flier miles which he collects like office-absconded paper-clips. No more stipends and luxury cars for hire, and platinum service lounges. He'll be flying coach rather than first-class. Worse than that, he'll be stuck in a cubicle going nowhere, considerably worse than coach.

Not only will he have to get his own drinks, he may have to get a life. Bingham is in a groove, as personal and as transitory as the swipe of a card-reader. He is constantly between Point A and Point B and prides himself on finding the most efficient route. His life is reduced to a minimum of baggage—carry-on's with wheels that don't squeek, a packing ritual as choreographed as a Fosse number down to the split-second, and little contact with family. He knows the airport routine cold. And as a sideline, he gives lectures on travelling efficiently in the air and in life. "Our attachments weigh us down," he intones to his conference rooms of drones. "The slower we move, the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. We are not monogamous swans. We are sharks."

Clooney's in full smug mode—a variation of his divorce attorney Miles Massey from "Intolerable Cruelty" played straight—he practically marches to the beat of "Come Fly With Me" and his smile is as practiced and measured as his patter...with everyone, business associates and family. His character has a part to play and when the show's over, it's "me" time, like the "James Bond" fantasy of living the high life while doing dirty jobs. Everything is first-class and preferred customer, his one goal being a targeted accumulation of miles over a life-time—his own personal best. He has an apartment, but he's never in it and it has the same empty utilitarian ambience of a Ramada Suite. He's the personification of "fly-by-night" in slip-off shoes.

So are his relationships, such as they are. At the same time that he is forced to show Natalie "the ropes" of the "down-sizing" business, he's established a "ships that pass in the night" fling with fellow traveller Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, finally getting a role that has more heft than "girlfriend"). Natalie, who probably has a Power-Point presentation for how her life is going to go ("I should be driving an Explorer by 23"), is horrified at the casualness of it all. She's just out of the starting blocks and doesn't know the pit-falls of the track ahead, with all the confidence and brashness of someone who doesn't know what she doesn't know, and how theory reacts when it collides with reality. It's a crash-course in transitioning, on the job and in real life, and the two veterans try to bring the kid down easy—at least to get her to remember to lock her wheels.

There'll I'll leave it, for to tell too much will ruin it. But I admire any movie that acknowledges the mature adult, that attempts to show that a life is segmented, complicated and compromised, where dreams could come true, but mostly don't, where decency is its own reward and the idea of "soul-mates" is a lot of hooey. A lot of hooey to sell soap.

And movies.

Jason Reitman grew up in movies—his father is Ivan Reitman—and with his first three films (the others being "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno") he has shown himself all too willing to throw sabo's into the gears of the Hollywood Dream Factory,** making contemporary movies of stylish form about tough choices and compromised principles in today's America, while still keeping them highly entertaining and unpretentious. One hopes he can sustain that promise and not flirt with issues of the elite, as so many of his peers have in the past, and buy into the fairy tale myth of mainstream Hollywood.

One hopes he can keep his feet on the ground.

"Up in the Air" is a Full-Price Ticket. Full-Price and First-Class.

* Kendrick is great, no doubt about it, but one hears a whine of feed-back in the false amplification of her perfromance. It is nuanced and studied, alright, and just a tinge robotic. The joy in the performance is watching the gears seize, the plugs mis-fire, and the LED's in her eyes dim. It's like watching a puppet turn into a real live girl. But she doesn't blow the other stars away, or "steal the movie." There's just a whiff of Dream Factory hype in this talk. As long as it stays in the publicity and stays off the screen, I'm all for it.

** If you do want an unequivocal happy ending and an example of dreams coming true, stay to the end of the movie. Reitman is a very generous man. And the song manages to perfectly distill the movie.