Sunday, December 20, 2009

Squalor: Up In the Air

Up In the Air is perhaps the most hyped film of the year (especially in St. Louis where it was filmed), and also the most undeserving of said hype.


The story is a simple and predictable one. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a consultant sent throughout the country to fire unsuspecting employees for bosses too cowardly to do the job themselves. He lives for the routine of these trips and the frequent flier miles, spending only a few days at home in a studio apartment too small for a house cat. Enter 23 year-old upstart Natalie (Anna Kendrick) who revolutionizes the process with video conferencing, removing the last human element from the job. Bingham is naturally horrified by the changes and is forced to take Natalie under his wing, teaching her the ways of the force, getting her to loosen up while simultaneously showing her a thing or two about humanity and the wisdom of experience. As his relationship with fellow chronic traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga) heats up, Natalie imparts her own advice to Bingham, helping him to grow a heart.


I could have let the predictable story go if director Jason Reitman had given the audience something else, anything else. But the script is entirely lackluster, full of cheap one liners that even Clooney's usual charm just barely supports. Clooney does his usual Cary Grant routine, which is neither here nor there, not horrible, but not groundbreaking, all sadness in the eyes and slight smile. It is refreshing to see Vera Farmiga as a love interest, a woman over 30 who neither whores herself out or plays the strong ice queen, but exudes intelligence and confidence without becoming a caricature of the high-powered woman. Here, she's entirely natural and beautiful in an atypical way. I'm also strangely attached to Kendrick, who doesn't do anything that impressive, but seems to be trying hard enough. It's in the few bonding moments between Clooney's Bingham and Kendrick's Natalie that the film takes a minute of serious drama and finds a bit of sincerity, but these moments are few and far between.


If the film had concentrated on the superficiality and desolation of corporate consulting, we might have gotten somewhere. Or, if Bingham and Natalie had found themselves unemployed, the film might have presented just the type of irony and schadenfreude we would need to relate. Instead, the film makes an attempt to reach out to the jobless masses of America in the most trite and insulting way possible, the only slight reflection of sincerity found in the sadness of Clooney and Kendrick's eyes as they listen to the newly unemployed lament their inevitable fates.

Many critics have praised this film for its timeliness and Reitman's understanding of the current American situation. It was irritating to sit there and watch Bingham tell a man that being fired was his chance to become a French cuisine chef, after the man had just talked about his expensive mortgage and his daughter's need of health care. After a little smile and pep talk from Bingham, the man is suddenly on board, ready to follow his dreams. It's always helpful to be positive and stay focused, but there comes a point when this sort of cliched platitude becomes insensitive, and here, Reitman shows himself the king of producing them. The film didn't need this sort of faux validation to draw out the drama, there was already enough there to work with.


For a typical film, Up In the Air is perfectly satisfactory and an enjoyable enough distraction for anyone that gets pleasure watching Clooney do what he does best. But ignore the hype, ignore the awards, and lower your expectations. There's nothing shocking or particularly moving here, unless of course you're one of the unemployed. In that case, it's better to just go see something like Avatar and escape for a few hours.
 

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