Buzz about Up in the Air is positioning the film and George Clooney’s performance for Oscar consideration. Critical consensus appears to be driving this assessment, with the film appearing on nearly every best-of-2009 list and some best-of-200x lists, but the power of the studio’s own marketing machine can’t be dismissed. (The term Oscar bait exists for a reason.) I see movies to be entertained, and Up in the Air succeeds remarkably well on that level. Oscar worthiness is something else, however, and my critical assessment diverges from consensus, which is why I’m offering a review.
The set-up is in fact entertaining and clever: a consultant who specializes in firing people from their jobs, thereby insulating management from that miserable, brutal task, spends most of his life on the road while keeping all attachments and entanglements nonexistent. In short, he avoids having any sort of meaningful life at all as most of us understand it. His sole hope beyond surviving into the next week, month, and year is to rack up enough frequent flyer miles to achieve rare top-level status. (Whether such status truly exists is irrelevant, as its function as a plot and characterization device doesn’t hinge on plausibility.) In real life, this character would be considered a heel or villain, but within the frame of the film, he’s the hero, the enlightened one, the guru by virtue of his moonlighting gig as a motivational speaker. To sell this jerk as a hero, the movie enlists the preternatural charm (and inseparable smarm) of George Clooney. This fact all by itself invalidates any pretensions to Oscar worthiness, as everyone knows that star vehicles are rarely ever Oscar-caliber films in which any real acting takes place except by supporting actors. Clooney, Pacino, De Niro, Eastwood, Hanks, Cruise, and others, after achieving superstar status, inevitably and invariably bring themselves too much into their movies and are relegated to playing variations of either themselves or some character they’ve already portrayed. They still draw people into theaters and entertain us, but they’re effectively banished from any real acting. Eastwood is forever grizzled, Hanks is forever earnest, Clooney is forever charming, and Cruise is forever weirdly intense. There are notable exceptions (e.g., Nicholson the forever iconoclast playing frumpy in About Schmidt), but in general, those singular characteristics are precisely why those actors are hired and rehired.
That’s the cardinal error of the film, but there are others. As all narrative forms require, conflict arises, leading to an epiphany for the main character. It’s a practically indispensable plot device — a character arc for one of two characters who should have none (the other being the quintessential organizational man, the manager of the consultancy) — and it’s both predictable and banal except for the charming and clever hoops Clooney has to jump through. (Yes, it’s Clooney doing the jumping; call him by some other character name, give him a few minor tics and preoccupations, but you can never forget you’re watching Clooney.) Through a web of tightly knit though implausible events and details that only exist in the telescoped timescale of narrative, with life-altering events piled high and deep, you witness how Clooney’s character armor and self-imposed isolation are unintentionally broken down, he tries going to the dark side (normalcy) but is ultimately thwarted, and he returns to being a no man from nowhere as opposed to an everyman from anywhere. A tragic ending, sort of, if only Clooney weren’t still so damn charming. Let’s turn to some of those implausible details that drag you through the story kicking and screaming if not for the suspension of disbelief.