Monday, December 14, 2009

"Up in the Air" Not So Much Like "Up in the Air"

Are you like one of those people who worry about whether the zeitgeist has been adequately captured for a particular time and place? Especially a time and place that you and everyone you know is currently experiencing? If so then I encourage you to see the theatrical version of "Up in the Air" -- "based" on the novel by Walter Kirn. Director / adaptor-to-film Jason Reitman contrived, as far as I can tell, a completely new story, using many of the same characters from Kirn's novel and vaguely similar plot points but that's where the parallels end.

I'm not a purist or, much worse, a fan boy. I don't need to be told the same story in order to enjoy it. I just think in the case of "Up in the Air" the spirit of the novel was lost to something 1) more immediately accessible to mainstream audiences and 2) egregiously schmaltzy and cloying in a way that uses stentorian terms requiring no discernment, like: "THIS IS REALITY AND THESE ARE THE REAL PEOPLE HARMED BY IT, AMERICA!" Does Reitman do some interesting things with these tropes that are as new to cinema as Frank Capra and his populist stories of the '30s and '40s? Yes, he does demonstrate that things are not always as easy as they may seem at first blush, and he isn't necessarily going to give the audience what they want, but he will give them something close to that.

"Thank You For Smoking" his first major success wasn't exactly a firebrand of controversy when it hit theaters in 2005. By that time the whole notion of smoking as an unconscionable vice was pretty well established, not to imply that was specifically what Reitman and company meant to showcase. Maybe Reitman was sad because he missed the zeitgeist as smoking goes, and wanted something that would make up for it. If so he really took Kirn's novel and ran with it, and contorted it while he ran with it, contorting it into something perplexingly easy. My problem is the book made a lot of the same points as the film, but better. Without hammering you over the head with the fact that Ryan Bingham's life as a nomadic traveler of the airways fails to fulfill the book achieved the same effect. In the end of the novel, Ryan Bingham is seated with Soren Morse, the CEO of Great West Airlines, Bingham's airline of choice. Bingham has just surpassed his monomaniacal objective of 1 million frequent flier miles (in the film it's 10 million, you figure adjusted for inflation and everything's bigger on screen) and discovers himself to be just as empty as he'd been before, just with 1 million frequent flier miles instead of without. A crescendo moment in his conversation with Morse goes like this:

"My miles go to children's hospitals," I say.

"That's great. What a gesture. We should get this out. I'll contact press relations when we land. You're serious?"

"Don't use my name. No name. It's not a gesture. It's barely charity. I'm sick myself; I can't use them anyway. Plus, I've been everywhere you people fly."
To be clear, this is not the conversation Clooney's Bingham has with the plane's captain (Sam Elliott, and his being the captain instead of the CEO is another departure from the novel I had no qualms with) when he achieves his objective of 10 million in the end. The substance is similar but the self-loathing is lost. The lack of any place left to go is lost. There is too much sugar coating the movie "Up in the Air." Perhaps that is why it struck me as deeply dishonest and flawed.

After seeing "Fantastic Mr. Fox" it was hard to watch George Clooney return to his standard, playing the character Ryan Bingham in his usual manner, essentially the same as in Oceans 11 through 13. Bingham a la Clooney is charming and guileful, with a little more of his ribald touch that has been evidenced better by him in better movies like "Burn After Reading" and "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" And the effort to make him a little ribald in the end seems to me to be the point of including the character Natalie Keener, played to good effect by Anna Kendrick -- even if I found her role to be very typical. She did well with limited material. In fact my favorite scene in the entire film involves her firing via computer a man in a Detroit office, which is easily the most moving, emotionally jarring part of the film, and her unnatural-to-her-character stoicism and unfeeling is nicely executed here, as we the audience know she is dying inside.

I wouldn't have as much of a problem with "Up in the Air" were in not for the fact that everyone, critics of all strips and audiences alike, seem to think it is deserving of a Best Picture Oscar, Reitman has achieved something great and that George Clooney somehow outdoes himself, all of which are praise I'm at a loss to understand. I even found the inclusion of the real people who'd been fired to be disjointing and misplaced, and even vaguely exploitative -- less of an effort to truly showcase the humanity that is discarded callously by our system and more to trot them out like animals on parade, in part because their stories aren't adequately told. We in the audience simply understand that they are "real" because it's a point that's been highly publicized about the film, and there they are, talking in pithy, generic lines you'd expect of someone who's been recently fired, maybe about what actually befell them, maybe not.

I know that I disagree this film is good. It is a C-, no better. That's what I think.

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