Review: Up in the Air

Posted: January 7, 2010 in Artistry, Cinema, Ethics, Media, Narrative

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.

At the outset, two women fall into Clooney orbit, though for different reasons. The younger woman is a world-changing type, full of youthful naïveté and enthusiasm. The authority she’s given to make wholesale changes and completely disrupt the consultancy’s business operations rather than more conservatively test marketing the new scheme (firing remotely via computer screen) is the sort of cheap ploy one expects to find in movie plots; it doesn’t wash. The older woman, who he picks up in a hotel bar, appears to be his female counterpart, and together they espouse boozy moral philosophy that really sounds more like self-help doubletalk for unwittingly damaged and stunted characters. Clooney and the older woman hit it off while he and younger woman are on the road, presumably to show her the old-school ropes but which in a little switcheroo (does every screenwriter think he’s M. Night Shyamalan now?) turns into an ill-fated opportunity to teach the old dog new tricks. Another cheap ploy. Who runs a business like that?

Let me observe at this point that for a character with pretty severe interpersonal phobias (despite all that manipulative charm and the presumed incessant hook-ups) to insist that face-to-face firing humanizes the process is every bit the rationalization as calling the job “transition facilitation.” And if the younger woman misses the point that sitting across the table from the fired employee is simply to misdirect predictable anger and resentment onto the hatchet man or woman, the movie isn’t being honest about that, either. Her scripted flowchart certainly makes her look hollow, but Clooney’s firing script is just as hollow — it’s merely internalized from years of honing.

After a period of humanizing the heel, including an unnecessary subplot involving the family Clooney had for all intents and purposes fired years before, he reaches his moment of crisis … on stage at one of his motivational speaking gigs. For such a consummate if amoral professional to lose it, in public no less, and run off without delay to declare his love (gasp!) for the older woman just doesn’t track. That’s really the stuff of teenage melodrama, which is why this comment by J.R. Jones in his Chicago Reader article about bogus Oscar pretensions makes good sense:

… when the recession began in late 2007, funding for indie projects began to dry up, and the bad economy only accelerated the trend of big studios shutting down their specialty divisions, which have generally produced their more intelligent and adventurous releases. So even more than usual, the American movie market has been dominated by big, dumb entertainments aimed at subliterate teenagers.

The additional revelation that the older woman lied and has a cozy family life hidden from him, while necessary in the plot to thwart Clooney’s newly found if pedestrian desire to play house, also makes no sense. If she felt it necessary to hide the truth from him, why on earth would she be dumb enough to give him her home address so that he could show up on her doorstep uninvited and imperil the whole second life?

One further structural observation: Clooney’s bogus character arc is ostensibly the mirror image of changes to the business operations of the consultancy. His is alone-connected-alone; the business is personal-disconnected-personal. The reasons for these parallel changes are different, but the structure can’t be coincidental, just as the protagonist’s career based on ending relationships is no mistake. Upon even modest reflection, it’s clear that the story asks the moviegoer to accept at face value some highly implausible twists and turns to arrive at the final result. On one positive note, the writers had the unusual sense to stay with the tragic ending, though of course it had to be leavened with a happy ending for the younger woman. The audience can’t be sent home without some triumph at the end.

So what of performance, as opposed to a merely bad screenplay? Did Clooney sell it? It is Oscar level? Clearly, I think not. Clooney was hampered by a plot full of holes, but the tightly integrated structure and use of obvious metaphor overcome that to a certain degree. Was there room within the movie to create a memorable character? Hardly. Clooney did was he was hired for: he conned and manipulated and charmed the audience into believing his character was heroic and enviable rather than just sad, or full of emotion rather than empty. The fact that at end of the film the audience does feel sad for him reinforces just how sad he really is, despite achieving the ultimately empty frequent flyer status, obtained in part by padding his dinner checks at every opportunity. Does the character stay with us? Not really. The movie will be in theaters for a while, but compared to other Best Picture and Best Actor nominees and winners, Up in the Air and Clooney’s performance are both far outclassed.

  1. Jennie says:

    Interesting. I enjoyed this review. I haven’t seen the movie, but I wasn’t really interested in seeing it because like you said, it’s basically Clooney wrapped up in a new bow for a new movie.

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