Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 12, 2009 1:36 pm 
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Jason Reitman (of Thank You for Smoking and Juno) has again done something smart and skewered the zeitgeist. Clooney, who has two hits and a miss out right now (this, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the misfired Men Who Stare at Goats), is at the top of his game, and his performance here shows everything he can do; his limitations fit those of his character.

If this is a comedy, it's a depressing one. Even with a gloss of wit and perfect timing, Up in the Air delivers a pill that's hard to swallow. Its blend of cynicism and uplift is at best confusing. It's a puzzle picture.

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) is a slickly shallow man whose job is delivering corporate layoffs (obviously an action of supreme relevance during the current Great Recession, but hardly a new thing). He flies round the country and his greatest goal in life, a rather abstract one, is to earn ten million miles of flying time. He works for the blandly amoral Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), whose staff zips around the country telling employees they're being let go and must clear out their desks, so their bosses don't have to have blood on their hands. If you have to have your dog killed, you take it to the vet's; this is the same thing.

While Ryan celebrates what he sees as an easy life full of enjoyable perks, this movie is full of pain. It richly details the reactions of devastated employees who have just learned they're fired, or tell the camera what it's like to be out of a job after 15 or 20 years with a house and a wife and kids. The terrible anguish of this experience is made clearer by the fact that actual fired persons have been used for many of these vignettes.

Ryan knows he is doing damage, and his focus is on being cool and businesslike about it. This could be compared to the job of the euphemistically titled Casualty Notification Officers in Moverman's The Messenger, who tell families their next of kin have died in Iraq, except that instead of the grim determination of Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster, Clooney's character goes about his work with brio, and seems to find life out of a suitcase hip and chic.

Ryan celebrates non-attachment (a value to Buddhists, but in their case not linked with cruelty). He even gives motivational lectures in which he advises success-seekers to get rid of unnecessary stuff in their lives, just as he pares down his necessities so he can travel anywhere with only a carry-on bag. In one version of the talk, he hypothetically fills a backpack with all the people in his life and then empties it out. He likes being up in the air; it's where he lives. He's even given up keeping a permanent apartment in Omaha, his company's headquarters.

Ryan is a teacher whose pupil learns a wiser lesson and who has to wise up himself. He meets his equal, Alex Goran (Vera Formiga, in a nicely modulated performance), in a bar and they become lovers. She explains to him later he should think of her as "you, with a vagina." We don't learn what she does, but she perfectly appreciates the prestige of Ryan's plastic cards that open doors or get him right on a flight or into a good rental car. She talks about the unknown size of his mileage as if it was the size of his penis, and "it must be huge." An iconic moment: their face-off after their first roll in the hay, laptop to laptop, finding a date when they're both free and in near enough airports to stage another rendezvous.

Danger of the same fate he's doling out comes to Ryan when Craig calls the entire staff back to Omaha for a meeting at which they learn they're going to be grounded. Craig has listened to a cold ambitious young women called Natalie (Ms. Kendrick), fresh out of business school, who's convinced him he can save tons of money by having his people do their hatchet jobs from headquarters via video hookup. Ryan is sent out with Natalie to test the new technology by firing people, first in the old way in person, then via video screen. He teaches her the elements of pro travel -- dumping unnecessary baggage, following Asians through security because they're organized and fast and wear slip-on shoes, and so on -- and then how to deal with angry, violent, or suicidal people they've just fired. That lesson she's not so ready for.

The irony is that being fired by an outsider is downright warm and human compared to having it done by somebody on a computer screen. Meanwhile Natalie's boyfriend fires her from their relationship via text message. She took this job and came to Omaha to be with him when she could have had a better job in San Francisco. Things get complicated with Alex for Ryan, and when Natalie meets Alex she challenges Ryan's complete unwillingness to accept commitment.

The movie gets preachy when Ryan and Alex attend his sister's wedding. Eventually the message is E.M. Forster's "only connect," and it's clear Ryan will become a very lonely guy if he doesn't reform. The sophistication of Alex and Ryan and their slick shared gamesmanship become hollow. They might be a couple out of the great age of Hollywood studio comedy -- except they aren't funny, and aren't meant to be. The trouble is, we only care about George Clooney when he's being a charmer or getting the better of someone and when his character is being shown up, he can seem shallow, tarnished. His gloss isn't invincible like Cary Grant's. What Reitman's doing here is complex and interesting, but the screenplay he co-wrote with Sheldon Turner is weak in various areas. The focus wavers too much between being about job loss and corporate wising up, and the movie's too sophisticated to wind up so reliant on cornpone wisdom.

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