Up in the Air

Critical darling Up in the Air is a movie that could stand to get me into a lot of trouble. This is largely because I don’t understand why it was the favourite of so many critics in the last year; it is a well-made movie, and a good one, but to me it had none of the emotional resonance that I expect from something like this.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) spends most of the year traveling. He loves it, and is good at his job: firing people on behalf of their employers.  When young upstart Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) proposes a webcam firing system, Ryan takes her on the road to demonstrate why the more personal touch is a better option. At the same time he has to negotiate the impending nuptials of his sister and the feelings that he develops for Alex (Vera Farmiga), a person exactly like him “but with a vagina”.

Clooney and Farmiga are very good in their roles, and their chemistry is believable; the fact that they exist only in a travel bubble rather than a tangible reality is not a problem. They work well in a scene designed to parallel an exit interview with Natalie, and they are largely taxed simply with co-existing. It’s the film’s most compelling and paradoxically honest note.

A major stumbling block, for me at least, is Kendricks. I couldn’t “like” her character at all: the idealistic young romantic with grand ideas about her purpose in life (which, for some reason, means nothing unless she has a man). It’s fine to not like a character, but Kendricks can’t sell her. Her performance was flat and she does not carry the role. She’s been nominated for several awards for her performance, some of which she won, so I’m wondering if it’s something about me and not the film, that is ever so slightly off.

Have I finally found a movie that I’m too young for? I identify with so much that I see in “personal” movies that really have nothing to do with my personal situation, but Up in the Air couldn’t quite crack my shell.

I think that this, in part, is because we’re probably supposed to feel sorry for the protagonist’s predicament: he prefers a nomadic life of solitude to staying in one spot and keeping the consistent company of others. So? It works for some people; it works for Ryan. There is the suggestion that he’s compromised part of his soul – and he has, a part – but a soul is different things to different people, just as a movie is.

If a movie can be said to have a soul, this one is lacking a small but crucial part of it. That is an incredibly objective statement and one nearly impossible to quantify, but that’s the impression that I got.

Up in the Air has been described as “light existentialism”; it seems to be faintly damning of how a man might choose to spend his life, if he’s happy with that. I always thought that Clooney had it good; I believe that maybe a man is allowed to be happy without somehow having been conned into simply believing that he is.

What is a true romance, that between man and airline (and that which Reitman apparently shares), is rendered cold, impersonal and somewhat pathetic. We’re not allowed to believe that Clooney could possibly enjoy what he does, and that he’s a bad man for doing so. It’s a judgment I could have done without.

Up in the Air is a good movie, but its plaudits mystify me: am I missing the truth of life that will be revealed to me once my body ticks over to a certain date? What is the final piece of the puzzle that didn’t click into place for me? Was I simply thrown off guard by Jason Bateman’s inappropriate facial hair? Was I suffering economy fatigue? (No, that is a fatigue triggered by Soderbergh).

The editing is good, the soundtrack great (certainly better than Juno’s endless Kimya Dawson “doo doo doo doo doo”), and Jason Reitman is certainly talented. At the same time, I didn’t think that Juno was best picture material, and I’m just as mystified here.

There’s something about Up in the Air that stops it short of greatness for me. It’s a smile of a movie, rather than the profoundly moving experience I think it would have liked to be.

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2 Responses to Up in the Air

  1. Wavatar Mark says:

    Well you won’t get into trouble from me, as I’m mostly in agreement. It’s a good movie with solid performances all around (I even liked Kendricks, though I think Farmiga outshines her), but you’re right that it’s missing something, and I can’t quite place my finger on what it is…

    I still believe that Thank You For Smoking is Jason Reitman’s best film, and it also hits something you mentioned in your review: It doesn’t judge the main character. Both movies feature a protagonist who does a job most of us would recoil at, but in Thank You, you get a good feel for the man and even begin to like him, despite what he does for a living. With Up in the Air, you never really respect the main character and never get any insight into him, and it’s all sorta trashed in favor of a more traditional arc (with some very predictable twists).

    Bah, it’s a good movie, but not a top 10 type of movie…

  2. Wavatar Alex says:

    At the start, Up in the Air felt like Son of Thank You For Smoking: the voice over, the fantasy sniper sequence. It showed promise. But I saw Thank You twice at the cinema, the first time without the benefit of Reitman’s Q&A, and the second time I saw it the sentimentality rang more false. It’s apparently supposed to be a father/son story, and because that’s what Reitman admits he was aiming for, it felt forced. Still a good movie, but once I knew what the strings were it was too easy to see where they were attached.

    I honestly am yet to read any other full reviews of Up in the Air, so I don’t know what about it is so arresting to Ebert et. al. I doubt anyone can change my mind when it’s largely in response to a vibe, but I’m always interested when someone is so wide of my own mark.

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