Sunday, February 14, 2010

Up In the Air: A Review


Going Terminal...

You know from the get-go that Up in the Air is a comedy because of the opening music, an up-tempo jazzy rendition of This Land is Your Land. Laughs don't usually come from situations that involve people losing their jobs, and Up in the Air proves that they still don't. This is the type of film that thinks is funny in an intellectual fashion but is neither as smart, clever, or interesting as it thinks it is.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has a most interesting job: he fires people for a living on behalf of the ironically named and somewhat sinister sounding Career Transition Counseling. He flies in to a certain city, tells people that their job is no longer available, and flies out again. Bingham has exactly two dreams: to hit 10 million air miles and speak at a major convention laying out his philosophy of traveling with as little baggage as possible. 

Bingham is happy to spend as little time as possible grounded, describing in voiceover those 43 days in his Omaha apartment when he is not in the air as miserable. That peripatetic life, however, is threatened by Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). She has come to CTC to introduce online layoffs, where CTC staff can give others their pink slips remotely. Bingham is firmly opposed to this idea, but his boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) is delighted with this cost-saving measure.

Over his objections, Bingham now has to squire the perky Natalie across the country so she can learn the ropes about laying off strangers. As they travel across the country, Bingham continues his liaison with Alex Gordon (Vera Farmiga), whom he met at a layover and with whom he's being laying over whenever their schedules permit. As Natalie finds that laying off others remotely is not what she expected, Ryan begins wondering if Alex can be more than his personal duty-free shop. Will seeing his estranged sister Julie (Melanie Lynsky) marry Jim (Danny McBride) make him rethink his life? Will he and Alex be able to build a life together? Will Natalie find a middle ground between her humanity and being a "termination engineer"? 

After a second viewing of Up in the Air, I think my views have softened against it, but not by much. Director Jason Reitman (who adapted Walter Kirn's novel with Sheldon Turner), never make a case as to why we should care about Ryan Bingham. 

I think it comes from the brazenly overt symbolism that the younger Reitman places throughout the film. There is the cutout that Julie asks Ryan to take with him of her and Jim photographed in front of various locales. I get the symbolism that the cutout (or rather his family) does not fit neatly into his baggage. It is a burden, one he could easily do without. 

As a side note, Julie's only request was to have the cutout be photographed in front of the Las Vegas Luxor hotel. As such, why not just have it sent there to whatever hotel Ryan is staying at, take the picture, and then send the cutout back to Omaha? 

asks us to do the impossible: try to convince us to sympathize with someone who has no sympathy for anyone. 

To be fair, I have  never read Up in the Air, but I cannot imagine how the audience can care for someone like Ryan Bingham.  is an extremely loathsome character, someone who is incapable of love and as such it's difficult to care about his journey. As a film viewer, I detest those little symbolic touches that are blatantly obvious. Take for example, the cutout of his sister and fiancé. He puts the picture in his luggage, and it doesn't fit--thereby symbolizing how his family (or any other human relation) doesn't fit into his neat little lifeless existence.

(Side note: wouldn't it have been easier to mail the cutout to Las Vegas, pick it up when it arrived at the hotel, have the picture taken, then mailed it back to his hovel? It might have been, but then we needed that "symbolism" about how Bingham couldn't fit his family or anyone in his life. When films do that, they end up irritating me at their own need to call attention to their imagery rather than trust the audience to understand what is going on).

When he's told that all the CTC agents are being grounded in favor of the online terminations (which is beyond cold and cruel) he is dead set against it, not because he knows that getting fired requires the personal touch (which he clearly doesn't have) but because it will put his dreams of achieving 10 million air miles in jeopardy, not to mention it will force him to stay in Omaha rather than continue living apart from humanity. In short, he doesn't object because it is reprehensible to fire people via remote but because it will affect him personally. How can we root for someone not only that selfish but that unfeeling? We rarely celebrate the misanthrope.

We also can't find any humanity in any of the other characters. Alex has no difficulties getting together with a man she doesn't really know just for some casual sex. Natalie seems oblivious to how dreadful it is to fire people at all, let alone via the coldest method possible. As for Craig, any person who believes a down economy where others are truly suffering is a wonderful thing can't be someone we can embrace.

This is at the core of what is wrong with Up in the Air: if you have no one to empathize or identify with, you end up not caring about what happens to any of the characters. If you can't identify with anyone on screen, you don't have a successful film.

I am aware that Up in the Air is supposed to be about how Bingham grows as a human, but for so long he remains the same that when he finally realizes that "What's in Your Backpack?" IS important, we don't believe the transformation. It also is unbelievable that Natalie, who is supposed to have a psychology degree, would be so thoroughly clueless about how people actually work. Bingham makes a good point when she tells him and Alex that her boyfriend dumped her via text message. "Just like being fired over the Internet", he tells Natalie.

Bateman and to a lesser extent Clooney are self-consciously smarmy, horrid people. Kendrick's Natalie is again perky and dumb, like an overly eager child who just found out she made captain of the cheerleading squad. She was never believable. Farmiga's Alex was, and she gave a solid performance, probably the only one who did.

The film begins with a montage of people getting fired and their reactions: anger mostly, though a few defensive and all hostile. It ends with a montage of the same people (at least I think they are the same--the movie felt so long I had all but forgotten) talking about how their life is after they were terminated. They realized life goes on. A comedy has to have either serious people in a humorous situation or humorous people in a serious situation to work. Up in the Air has neither: there really is nothing funny about watching people lose their jobs or about the people doing the firing. On the whole, Up in the Air never takes off. Also, I never imagined that sitting next to Sam Elliot was considered a prize.

In between flying from city to city to devastate others, Bingham collects frequent flier miles and speaks at seminars about the positives of having little baggage both professionally and personally. flies throughout the country and gives people extremely devastating news with no sense of empathy or any other emotion really. This kind of life is perfect for Bingham, who wants no attachments on any level and is only truly alive when he is going from airport to airport collecting frequent flier miles. He is a stranger to his sisters, to the point where he is annoyed about being asked to take a cutout of one of them and her fiancé and taking a picture of it in front of buildings and has to be all but dragged kicking and screaming to do it.

Speaking at motivational seminars encouraging people to basically dump everyone around them makes him happy. Knowing what and how to pack makes him happy. Having little in his apartment or life to show for his existence makes him happy. Travelling so as to achieve 10 million miles makes him happy. Having a casual affair with Alex Gordon (Vera Farmiga) whom he meets at an airport and sleeps with whenever their paths cross (and who appears to be a female version of Ryan) makes him happy. In a nutshell, Ryan's thoroughly soulless, a man for whom nihilism is a source of joy.

However, Ryan's neat little world is facing a threat from Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). She has brought the assembly line to the world of termination: she has created a system to fire people on-line via remote webcam. This pleases Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), the head of CTC and the only person more soulless than Bingham, a man who truly sees the increase in unemployment as a wonderful thing. It however, horrifies Bingham, and after a disagreement with Gregory has to take Keener under his wing to show her the ropes. There, the two fly all around the continental U.S. (St. Louis, Wichita, Kansas City, Tulsa, Des Moines, Miami, Detroit), he firing people and fitting in trysts with Alex and arguments with Natalie, who is at turns both perky and dumb--the CTC version of Katie Couric. Eventually, Bingham begins to wonder, what's it all about.

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