Up in the Air

Let me get my joke out of the way. Don’t worry, I only have one. Here goes: it’s called Up in the Air because it’s really, really lightweight. Thankyou, I’m here all week.

I won’t keep you long, because Surely Jason Reitman’s new comedy is packing them into cinemas across the UK and being greeted with shrugs of “Well, that was nice, but is that it?” All the acclaim, all of the awards nominations and Oscar buzz for a film in which someone runs to the airport to tell someone he loves them. Yikes. Is this really the film being cited as the mature alternative to Avatar? Is this what passes for “indie” these days?

I was surprised to find such a straightforward, riskless film attracting so much attention, but given the propensity for the Indiewood scene to garner praise for even the slightest hint of subversion or ambiguity in its portrayal of white male professionals coming to question the value of their routinised existences (About Schmidt, American Beauty, Little Miss Sunshine…), I probably need to desensitise my surprise detectors.

There’s fabulous material at the centre of this film. The settings in hotels, airport lounges, conference rooms, offices are the perfect places for a Coupland-sharp examination of hermetically-sealed, emotionally stunted people learning a few lessons. I don’t even mind that it’s not cynical about the sterile non-spaces in which its characters rattle around, but it’s quite drably staged, with a slavish attention to a shot/reverse shot pattern that follows the beats of the script. This really is a screenplay for which the resulting movie is a formality. Characters take it in turns to explain their personal philosophies. It’s so dialogue driven that none of the dialogue rings true; it’s all one smart, tidy statement about modern life after another, and quite tiresome as a result. It’s all so carefully, deliberately set out, and yet this is a film that condemns the way routine stifles spontaneous, down-home, honest emotion (as represented by Clooney’s family). As Up in the Air keeps telling its protagonists, it needs to cut loose and have some fun.

I’m sure I’ve seen George Clooney play the smooth-talking, self-assured professional with a detailed personal code of practice and well-rehearsed patter many times before. For examples, see From Dusk Till Dawn, Out of Sight, Three Kings, Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen, Michael Clayton, and even the slightly deluded versions of the same character he gives us in The Men Who Stare at Goats, O Brother Where Art Thou? and The Fantastic Mr Fox. In each, he’s a renegade or a rebel with a very tightly-plotted plan, a strong sense of how stuff should be run, even when he’s playing a criminal, an escaped convict or a fox in corduroy. It’s an extremely consistent portrayal of the tensions between conformity and individualism, between justice and the law, but it’s wearing a bit thin. When his character in Up in the Air winds up right back where he started, it’s hard to feel too much sympathy, because Clooney himself has his shit so obviously together in real life that we never truly see him as a lost soul, an underdog victim of a deadening corporate system of vacuum-packed living. If his onscreen counterpart goes home unloved, it feels less like an emotional truism than a smug riff on Clooney’s public status as Hollywood’s most eligible, least interested bachelor.

OK, if you haven’t seen the film and you don’t want a big spoiler, you should stop reading and go and find something else to do. You’ve got the message that I thought Up in the Air was nice but nothing special, so you can live without what follows, I’m sure. It was nice to see you, but we should part company. The rest of you can rejoin me after the irrelevant picture of Anna Kendrick below.

Good, you stuck around. Thanks. I didn’t like those other readers anyway, and I’m sure you didn’t either. I like you much better. Anyway, I don’t know if you read my piece on Nowhere Boy, but it concluded with the observation that it, and two other recent British films, featured the same dramatic device of having a big secret living a short walk from the protagonists’ house. Up in the Air has the same twist – when Clooney runs to Vera Farmiga’s house to declare that he’s finally ready to come out of his airline bubble and be a fully-functional lover, it turns out that she’s already married, and that she was just the female equivalent of him (a fact she had been upfront about all along, to be honest), using the non-spaces between destinations as zones where the usual rules of family commitment did not apply. I feel like I’ve seen this twist dozens of times, and that it is now the default setting for films hoping to prove themselves a bit edgy in their notions of passionate romance and its uneasy fit with societal expectations. But now that I have to justify it, I suddenly can’t think of any more. I just recall the reverse version of the same twist at the end of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and how much more affecting it was when John Candy’s married life was revealed to be not quite how he had been representing it…


3 thoughts on “Up in the Air

  1. A very funny post! Lovely reading after my fist barbecue ( I have been in Australia how long…?). I am going to see the film tomorrow, but I still read the whole post and will let you know what I thought of it!

    The only film recommendation I can offer of late is ‘Bright Star’.

    The new Pedro Almodóvar film ‘Broken Embraces’ – which has an excellent, yet irrelevant opening scene – I found rather boring (a bit like Inglourious Basterds, but that is another story. Maybe I am just hard to please). Thanks again for an excellent post, as indeed, was the one on Ed Ruscha: incredible work there, and the website was exceptional also.

    Much fun, Sean.

  2. So I went to see the film last night (what else is there to do on Australia Day…). One of the things that struck me was the level of insincerity, of repeated lies. For instance, the greeting George Clooney is given by the check-in clerks; the text messages between Clooney and Vera Farmiga which postulate mutual, though distant, masturbation; the (repeated) speeches given to those who are sacked; that Vera Farmiga is married – while you mention that she had made this clear in the film (she had at least indicated there was something more to her life), this passed me by, and it certainly passed by Clooney! And stealing other peoples passes to go to a convention/party (okay, this is perhaps the most minor).

    The idea of his sister and husband-to-be of having friends photographing cardboard cut-outs of themselves to replace actually going to such places, of going on honeymoon, while not insincere in itself, somehow relates to the elements mentioned above: a lie that everyone knows (maybe this is way too hash. I do think it relates somehow though).

    The only ‘hero’ is Clooney’s assistant who resigns from the job, but even this redemtion (maybe this is to strong a word… aah well) is brought about by the suicide of a woman she sacks, So an is an element of guilt is aso associated with this decision (I also found this character to be too excessive, especially in relation to the two other characters, as well as the settings, almost reaching the level of characture… okay, I am overplaying my hand here!)

    The repeated shots of packing/unpacking and the use of the laggage bag by Clooney was interesting, setting up the final shot of him letting go of the trolley while looking at the flights board. I thought this provided a somewhat (slightly) ambiguous close: does he continue with his job or not? I think he does.

    Now that I am typing this I can think of instances that contradict some of the points above, but I will leave them as they are – my impressions of the film as I watched it. And I would give it maybe a 5 out of 10. And I guess you could have a competition: what was the French film mentioned but never named in association with photographing the cut-out?

    And on an unrelated matter, any more posts from your students lined up?

    • Happy Australia Day, Sean! The thing with the cardboard cut-out might be just a sweet comparison with the artifice of Clooney’s own existence. He himself is not really travelling to all these places, because he only visits offices and airports. He’s squandering his opportunities to “see” the world, as opposing to just flying around above it. I quite liked Clooney’s wise-cracking sister, who talks a lot of sense. I was a bit disappointed that the characters just stayed the way they were – it quickly became uncool to stick up for Reitman’s previous film, Juno, but it did at least one difficult and impressive thing: having set up Jennifer Garner’s character as a self-serving wannabe mommy desperate to fill her own emotional gaps with a child, a character type we immediately think we “know”, it waits until the end to completely alter the way in which she is perceived. You can barely even notice the point at which it happens. That was really effective, and very different from Clooney learning a few life lessons, which we knew was going to happen anyway.

      No plans for contributions from students: that particular module has finished now, though if they’d like to publish anything here, they should get in touch. Their posts got a lot of attention round here.

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