Sunday, January 10, 2010

Up in the Air

Up in the Air is the sort of film that diminishes the instant you leave the theatre. It makes no serious missteps, but only because it risks so very little. After it was finished, I felt a little resentful—am I really expected to believe that something so polished and bland is an example of quality filmmaking? I imagine it has already reserved a slot in some future Academy Awards montage, presumably one of those self-celebrations of Hollywood’s endless dedication to making pictures that expose the pressing social concerns of the day, as acted out by millionaires with strong jaw lines and good teeth.

Using timeliness as a dodge, the film evokes economic anxieties while avoiding any real stance or political outlook. Like a fog that descends upon viewers, the notion that this is a comment on the economic downturn obscures the fact that the only pressing social matter actually addressed by the film is whether or not George Clooney will ever settle down and have kids (millions of People and Us Weekly readers want to know).

As Ryan Bingham, a roving executioner brought in by firms too cowardly to lay off their own staff, Clooney is the usual smooth charm and fast talk. There are some laughs to be found in the banter and quips, but director Jason Reitman’s competent and unremarkable style is too glib to handle the more somber aspects of the film’s final third, as Ryan struggles with the emptiness of his lifestyle. The film moves with pep and does a good dance, but when it counts you realize you’ve put your money on a featherweight.

As Ryan tries to deal with his lack of emotional connection to other people, the film becomes a rather dull paean to the importance of family in these hard times. The film makes its point mostly through cheeky reversals, such as having the stridently anti-commitment Ryan coaching his sister’s nervous fiancĂ© on the virtues of marriage. Most depressingly, the film allows Ryan—supposedly alienated and emotionally isolated—to buy back his soul, rather than earn it, through a series of simple good-will gestures that cost him nothing yet leave him redeemed. No longer an angel of death, he now serenely floats above us, a benign, beatific presence or some such Hollywood plop.

In interviews with laid-off white-collar workers at the beginning and end of the film, Reitman ostensibly gives a voice to the unemployed, and yet denies them of anything to say beyond banalities. The opening montage is a collection of alternately angry and pitiful outbursts; the concluding is a feel-good homily to how wonderful it is to have a husband or wife to hug you when you’re laid off. Am I the only one disgusted at the thought of turning the unemployed into the chirping chorus of one rich guy’s mid-life crisis?

Cheer up, the film seems to say, unemployment isn’t bad, as long as you’ve got a family to care for you. (If you don’t, then I guess you’re fucked, but that’s not part of the script.) All you need is love, hocus pocus, happy times are here again. Personally, if I’m being asked to swallow this shit sandwich, I’d like a good dose of hot sauce. Can we get a little bit of rage here, please?

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