Down with the People
by Michael Koresky
Up in the Air
Dir. Jason Reitman, U.S., Paramount Pictures
Up in the Air wants to tell us a lot about America. About our priorities, our lost dreams, our pasts and futures, our blind spots, and, as any award-hungry movie does, it wants to diagnose how We live now. Just how confused the film is about who that We might be, and how much filmmaker Jason Reitman and his co-screenwriter Sheldon Turner (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) evidently care about those “little people” who make up most of that We, should be more of a topic of discussion in the film’s rapturous reception. Instead, Up in the Air has been accepted basically at face value—fitting for such a superficial film.
The only verifiable truth I took away from Up in the Air about this country that We live in (a jazzy version of “This Land Is Your Land” plays sassily over the opening credits) is just this: only in America could the allegedly defining film about the current economic crisis focus not on any one of the struggling unemployed but rather on the sleek, sophisticated, thousand-dollar-suit-wearing corporate smoothie whose job it is to fire them. (The two most resonant films of the decade about the effects of sudden unemployment, Time Out and Tokyo Sonata, each about male breadwinners unable to tell their wives and children about losing their jobs, were from France and Japan, respectively, and could serve as valuable lessons to the makers of Up in the Air.) Ever the faux everyman, Reitman throws in snippets of Real People to placate doubters (lest anyone think a Hollywood filmmaker’s prime motivation might be, gasp, opportunism), but these clips of nonactors who were actually terminated from their jobs, hired to speak their frustrations directly to the camera, every so often thrown at the audience like circus peanuts, are cynical concessions. Up in the Air is not about the fired father who fears that he won’t be able to pay for his child’s education, the single mother of two who loses her job-based health care, the fiftysomething careerist who’s been informed of her uselessness in her company’s grand scheme—it’s about that bright, gleaming movie star George Clooney, jetting effortlessly, with the aid of his perfectly packed suitcases, business-class seats, and determined wing tips, from sea to shining sea.
Naturally the film purports to problematize that image of perfection that Clooney so thrillingly embodies. And the famously socially conscious actor so convincingly allows his ethical awakening to register across his classic Hollywood handsomeness that one could be forgiven for mistaking the film’s crass sanctimony for true empathy. Rather Up in the Air is simply machine-tooled humanism, carefully calculated to push the various buttons of its audiences, whether they showed up for a romantic comedy, an “excoriating” take on corporate soullessness, a movie about shiny baubles or economic realities: make no mistake, Up in the Air is a product, and Reitman, hailed as the important new American auteur, has only proven himself thus far in his career to be a Hollywood huckster.
Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking, with its fish-in-a-barrel take-down of a tobacco lobbyist (and depiction of, yes, his moral awakening), Juno, that fabricated “indie” phenomenon that appropriated and made mainstream the tiresome tropes of a half-dozen Wes Anderson wannabes in the service of a cheap teen-pregnancy narrative, and Up in the Air make for an astonishingly glib trio. One can imagine that Alexander Payne, Reitman’s clearest peer in this sort of self-consciously astute American social satire, might have made a more palatable film out this material (at the very least he would have fetishized its consumerism less), yet conceptually Up in the Air, based on a novel by Walter Kirn, might have been corrupt from the start. It becomes increasingly clear that Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is not merely our conduit to viewing the pain of average Americans who look and talk nothing like George Clooney, but that he will also become one of the casualties of nationwide downsizing himself; he may soon be phased out of his job—which consists of him entering the anonymous boardrooms of various faceless corporate entities and firing strangers to their faces—and replaced by the cheaper, more efficient, and less humane methods of doing so via a Skype-like internet service. This questionable new development in Ryan’s already questionable business model is brought to the table by chipmunk-cheeked upstart Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), praised for her go-getter attitude by their boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman, doing his 624th variation of bottomless unfounded smarm; the actor’s flat delivery in identical role choices over the past few years have been enough to make one wish Arrested Development never happened at all). Soon enough, Ryan is taking Natalie along with him on his missions of termination to show her the ropes: for him to prove to her that these delicate situations require a sensitive bedside manner; for her to hone her firing skills.
So Up in the Air becomes a mentor-protégé odd-couple story, while at the same time a banter-heavy romantic comedy between Ryan and Alex (Vera Farmiga), a perfectly coiffed woman in her late thirties or possibly early forties with an indeterminate corporate job who, like Ryan, claims to live happily out of her suitcase and whose schedule always seems to coincide with Ryan’s, giving them enough time to have quick hotel-room screws in between meetings. Confirmed bachelor Ryan’s oft-articulated rejection of romance and his insistence (voiced most often to Natalie) that he sees no practical future in love are put to the test as he gradually falls hard for the equally sleek Alex, played by Farmiga with an almost superhuman nonchalance. Farmiga may not be a great beauty, but we believe it when other characters keep remarking on her loveliness, so confidently does she hold herself and so elegantly does she wear her designer duds.
Clooney and Farmiga’s easy chemistry points toward the airy love story Up in the Air might have been (no surprise there, however, considering Clooney’s one of the best in the business when it comes to connecting with women onscreen—his alternation of emotional transparency and standoffishness makes for one of contemporary cinema’s most charming rogues). Alas, Ryan and Alex’s story is just one interwoven thread in a seamlessly slick package more interested in telling its audience how plugged into the moment it is than in finding the beating hearts of its characters. Shots of the casual lovers instant messaging dirty words while lying in hotel beds in separate cities, or opening their laptops side by side to check their schedules following a bout of sweaty sex say less about these people than about the filmmakers’ pointed treatment of contemporary life (they’re so connected yet disconnected at the same time!).
And Alex’s decision to accompany Ryan to his sister’s Milwaukee wedding in the film’s preposterous third act mostly serves to conveniently allow Reitman and Turner to hold Ryan and Alex up against the “real,” salt-of-the-earth types embodied by his slightly estranged sister Julie and soon-to-be brother-in-law, Jim, played flatly by Melanie Lynskey and Danny McBride. In another side note that only a falsely, perfectly honed Hollywood screenplay could serve up with a straight face, Ryan has been enlisted to take photographs of famous U.S. landmarks during his travels with a cardboard cut-out of Julie and Jim in the foreground for a wedding photo collage; naturally when we meet them in the flesh, Julie and Jim, affected by the recession as much as Ryan has profited from it, are nearly saintly in their modest Midwestern happiness. They can’t afford to travel, but they don’t have to, because they value home and family; Ryan, of course, zooms around the country daily, accruing useless frequent-flyer miles, yet he values nothing. It’s a revelation equally contemptible of both the heartless corporate drone and the good heartland folk, reducing both to hopeless types.
Up in the Air’s utter disinterest in anything and anyone that can’t be buffered to a shiny finish crystallizes in one small but crucial scene. During Ryan and Natalie’s cross-country scourge, they come upon a woman whose response to her horrifically impersonal firing is to quietly claim, with her eyes trained directly on our antiheroes, that she will jump off a bridge. She is a middle-aged African-American, measured, calm, her tragedy masked by her seeming wisdom. Late in the film, we realize, offhandedly, that she has followed through on her threat. The off-screen death of this woman, to whom we were never properly introduced, is the last straw for Natalie, and perhaps Ryan. Her suicide is therefore a noble sacrifice, accomplished so that our dapper star can see the error of his, and his country’s ways. This woman, for all intents and purposes nameless, has given our movie star a reason for living honestly. One more commoner falls. A movie star rises.