Up in the Air: Just like my feelings

Today’s George Clooney day at EarnThis, where we’ll examine Up in the Air, recently nominated for Best Picture, and Michael Clayton, likewise nominated in 2008.  Clooney’s career has advanced considerably thanks to both films, but one holds up a lot better than the other.

Up in the Air

Rating: 2 and a half stars (out of 4)

Melding that sort of comedic-drama tone that critics love, George Clooney, and topics that hit home to many in today’s economic climate, Up in the Air swept its way through the late-season awards period towards Oscar recognition.  Final hardware didn’t quite match the initial critical buzz, but most saw this movie as another positive step for Clooney and director/writer Jason Reitman (Juno).  Like Juno, Air is one of those relatively plotless and occasionally charming films that succeed or fail on the basis of their characters, themes, and ending.  My feelings about Air have come back to Earth the more I’ve thought about it; parts of it excel, but it takes too long to hit its stride, and the ending is way too inconsistent to wrap everything up. 

Based on a novel (of course), Air focuses its camera primarily on Clooney’s Ryan Bingham, a man who lives in airports and airplanes.  As a consultant hired out by companies to do their dirty work of firing employees, Bingham sails around the country more than 300 days a year.  Hotels and airports aren’t his home away from home; his empty apartment domicile is.  Air spends a long time, probably too long, emphasizing how much Ryan loves the skies—the endless quick shots of him packing up suitcases take Martin Scorsese’s brief collection of a Leonardo DiCaprio quick-pack in The Departed and add steroids—and making us brace for the inevitable come-down, literally and figuratively.

After a so-so first twenty minutes or so, Up in the Air really hits its stride in the midsection.  Ryan takes a young buck with a new business plan, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), under his wing, amusingly showing her the ropes about flying (get in line behind the Asians, he says, who travel very light) and engaging in some tete-a-tete banter about their profession (he’s horrified by her idea to fire people over a webcam).  Fortunately, the film doesn’t pair these two up romantically; Ryan instead swaps naughty repartee (and bodily fluids) with Vera Farmiga’s Alex, a fellow corporate traveler turned on by his, uh, mileage. 

It’s here in the middle part that the joys of this widely-praised film can be found.  A simple conversation with the three protagonists over relationships, inspired by Natalie’s breakup, is funny and touching.  Young Natalie, mercifully, doesn’t cower under the presence of Ryan (and Clooney), challenging his feelings towards Alex is a delicately handled scene on a boat dock.  For a while, the film begins to challenge the viewer as well, presenting a secretly disappointed lead character who, if not wholly original, makes us ponder the harsh side effects of glamorous but soulless lives. 

And there are a number of small moments that could have deteriorated into farce that wisely don’t—see the moment when a statue falls into water, or when a boat ride suddenly goes dark.  Ryan’s extended family gains greater prominence as the film goes on, with his sister’s upcoming marriage, and note that when he asks to walk her down the aisle, she declines, poignantly informing him that she’d already chosen someone else, someone who’d been a bigger part of her life.  Up in the Air is a sad movie at its core, in its depictions of failed relationships (everywhere, right down to Ryan’s aunt) and the almost painfully real scenes of people being fired.   

Flying and sleeping with anyone you want without commitment—Clooney’s Ryan Bingham trades on every 13 year-old boy’s fantasies.  Of course, this won’t come as much of a shock to anyone who’s been following his career, as he’s officially taken up the mantle (from Harrison Ford, perhaps) of the guy-who-knows-he’s-madly-charming-and-yet-still-gets-away with it.  In movies like Ocean’s 11 and Michael Clayton, this worked well, in large part because of their considerable additional strengths.  By this point, however—and after hearing that Reitman wrote this part with Clooney in mind—it’s beginning to seem that Clooney is being glorified for past successes.  He’s still wildly charismatic in Air, but somewhat limited; there were several moments when I was anticipating more from him, and nothing came.  He was better in Clayton; here, his character vacillates too much, although maybe the dramatic parts aren’t written thoroughly enough for him to do much with.  Farmiga and Kendrick, for what it’s worth, were fine but hardly notable, making their joint Oscar nominations equally puzzling.    

Ultimately, what keeps me from wholly recommending this movie are its treatment of its characters and the points it seemed to be making.  It mirrors a common trend in movies by refusing to seriously condemn its characters; nowadays, films seem too afraid to make a statement and possibly offend someone, and so they want us to love everybody on screen.  Yeah, Ryan isn’t allowed to walk his sister down the aisle, but then his aunt turns to him for a critical conversation with the reluctant groom, and given not only Ryan’s absence in their lives but also his attitude toward commitment, that makes no sense (other than to have us admire him more).   

The ending amplifies the film’s qualities and flaws, inspiring both praise and mad frustration.  Overall, it did the right thing by keeping Alex and Ryan apart, and there’s a truly sad moment when he shows up at her door and gets his heart broken.  When we think back to her coyly inviting him to do that, we can very easily understand—she thought he’d never call.  But then, kind of like the last Lord of the Rings, the film goes on, and on, and on, seemingly ending about four times.  We don’t need that phone call between him and her after the rejection in which she bizarrely seems to suggest that she would indeed take him in return for moderate commitment.  We don’t need the final plot twist with Natalie and the suicide mention.  The action, rather than falling after the climax, jumps up and down like a tracker of the stock market, and I lost track of how many times I felt would have been right for the movie to end.    

And afterwards, the film just left me with too many nagging, irritating questions.  Although I liked the lighthearted tone, I don’t think I agree with too many of the beliefs being indirectly put forth by Reitman.  Doesn’t his decision to ask the real people who were laid-off to re-enact their worst moments on camera scream exploitation?  Who let Bingham masquerade as a motivational speaker when he encouraged people to care less about things they cherish, including people?  Why is a film invariably “for its time” just because it centers around people getting fired?  And why are we made to view Natalie as heartless for wanting to fire people online and yet extol Ryan for his levity and pluck?  His in-person method may be slightly kinder, cosmetically more appealing; but, at the end of the day, what’s the difference?  The person on the other end is still being fired.

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

The Goods: Film Reviews

The Goods: A Film Podcast

Available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, and more.

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