Plenty of Memberships, Few Privileges
2009 // USA // Jason Reitman // January 16, 2010 // Theatrical Print (St. Louis Cinemas Moolah Theater)
C- - Back in May 2008, I observed after a second viewing of the backlash-savaged Juno that Jason Reitman's crisp, understated direction plays a crucial role the film's success, and that it in fact called to mind the comedic work of Sydney Pollack. I still stand by that statement, and by the film's place as one of the most perfectly realized ensemble comedies of the decade, which I will readily defend with knife clutched firmly in teeth. However, Reitman's latest film, Up in the Air, serves primarily to highlight the bottled lightning quality of Juno, solidifying its status as a fortuitous confluence of direction, writing, and performance that may never again be approached by the parties involved. Up in the Air boasts none of the focused, superbly paced comedic storytelling that characterized Reitman's previous effort. In fact, the characteristics that most define his direction here are a distressing lack of understanding regarding his audience's sympathies, and a clumsy attempt to fuse two or three stories that do not function together as well as he imagines. To be sure, George Clooney's unfailingly magnetic presence renders the proceedings more tolerable than they would otherwise be, and the central romantic drama of the film is compelling stuff. Yet these caveats only highlight the ill-advised and even insulting aspects of Up in the Air.
Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a middle-aged, white-collar workhorse who approaches modern business travel as not just a science, but a lifestyle. Ryan craves mobility, and the phony warmth and paltry, shrink-wrapped conveniences of airlines, rental car companies, and mid-tier hotels are like oxygen to him. This is a man who actually likes the things that provoked Jack's schizoid rebellion in Fight Club. Ryan spends over ninety percent of his life on the road, and it shows: his home is a nearly unfurnished little studio apartment in Omaha. He even moonlights as a self-help speaker, holding forth on the benefits of traveling light, in terms of both luggage and human relationships. Disengaged from his family, who are baffled by his rootless way of life, Ryan has no interest in settling down, and his Holy Grail is the essentially abstract goal of accruing ten million frequent flier miles.
Ryan is an admittedly fascinating character. He's hopelessly cynical and petty, forthright about what he wants out of life, and utterly unapologetic about it. He clearly imagines himself as a better breed of human, one with the skills to survive with a minimum of hassle and heartbreak in a perilous, lightning-paced modern world. And yet quite early in the film, Reitman throws a monkey wrench into this man's smoothly whirring approach to his surroundings, in the form of Alex (Vera Farmiga). She's a road warrior too, one just as absorbed with rewards programs, hospitality suites, and bonus miles. She's also witty, attractive, and filthy-minded, which makes her an ideal fuck-buddy for a guy like Ryan. Shortly after they tumble into bed, they start planning their next rendezvous by searching their respective schedules for any overlap in time and place amid all the cross-country travel.
In a more conventional romantic drama, Ryan would hook up with someone who wasn't his type at all, a woman who would teach him the value of slowing down and cultivating relationships. Instead, Ryan discovers a woman who shares his values and, initially at least, seems to want the same thing: namely, zesty sex and lots of perks. At first, Up in the Air seems to validate a stalwart approach to romance: Don't settle, because eventually a good match will come along. Naturally, stumbling upon his female clone starts to make the narcissistic Ryan a little drunk with infatuation, and he ironically finds himself longing for something like a relationship. (As if to drive home the point that his affection for Alex is one step removed from self-love, she cracks, "Just think of me as yourself. Only with a vagina.") As you might guess, there is romantic disillusionment down the road, but I'll leave it at that.
Clooney is always a potent screen presence, but he isn't quite right for this role. While Ryan is an asshole as written, and the actor delivers assholish lines, the assholishness in never wholly believable, because, well, it's George Clooney, and in Lovable Scamp mode at that. Sure, there's a bit more misanthropy and shallowness there than usual, but Ryan isn't too far from the archetypal Clooney role: a man who has a particular way of life all figured out and knows it. The actor is capable of deforming and exploiting his persona to powerful effect—witness his captivating portrayal of an attorney mid-immolation in Michael Clayton, or the creepy inversion of the Clooney charm in Burning After Reading—but Reitman fails to demand anything so ambitious from his leading man.
The fundamental dilemma with Up in the Air is that this movie, about a shallow man living an odd lifestyle and the kindred spirit who tests his assumptions, is grafted to another movie. I haven't yet mentioned what Ryan does for a living yet because, contrary to what Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner suppose, the man's career really isn't essential to the romantic drama, which is the most appealing aspect of the film. Ryan, you see, works for a consulting firm that fires people for other companies. He criss-crosses the nation visiting corporations he's never heard of, laying off people he's never met, and then flying off to his next destination. He tries to make the process as quick, painless, and shooting-spree-free as possible, but there's no way around the reality that Ryan's firm thrives on collapse. His boss (Jason Bateman) even gloats, without a glimmer of self-awareness or pity, about how good the current economic recession has been for their company.
The ridiculously fresh-faced Anna Kendrick has a substantial role in the film as Natalie, an Ivy League hotshot who wants to transition the company to "virtual firings" via a computer terminal, a shift that threatens Ryan's preferred airport-hopping lifestyle. In a contrivance that makes little sense, Ryan is assigned to show Natalie the ropes during the final weeks of the company's face-to-face style of termination.cUp in the Air is therefore also a Mentor-Pupil film, as Ryan teaches Natalie—who is, of course, uptight and brilliant, but also emotionally vulnerable and lacking in wisdom—how to survive in his world of premium memberships and complimentary cookies.
Now, I understand what Reitman is doing here in drawing a parallel between Ryan's unfettered existence and the fact that he lays people off for a living. The problem is that it it's an awkward and aimless connection whose meaning is unclear. Running through the film is the mildly offensive notion that losing your job is just a wake-up call to a better life, an opening for reassessment and a fresh trajectory. While there may be some validity to this for some people, Up in the Air's presentation of it as a universal tenet is both myopic and repugnant. By implicitly linking such a sentiment to Ryan's mobile lifestyle, it becomes almost Orwellian, as though chronic joblessness—and, apparently, bankruptcy, eviction, hunger, and humiliation—were the secret to America's success. Fired working people are this generation's pioneers, dontchya know!
Any admiration we might feel towards Ryan due to his elite traveling skills are demolished by his utterly unsympathetic career. We're apparently supposed to feel for a guy who fires people for a living, and glories in all the trivial perks he gets while jetting around the country to do it. Reitman muddles things by failing to clarify how Ryan feels about his job: at times he appears to believe the platitudes his company espouses to devastated employees, and at other times he seems to cynically dismiss them as so much nonsense. He grouses about the lack of human touch in Natalie's computer-based firings, but seems more concerned about becoming sedentary than the devastation he wreaks on the lives of workers. There's the outline of another film buried deep in Up in the Air, one constructed along a recognizable template: a bottom-feeder has a crisis of conscience and resolves to set out on a new path. However, Reitman isn't making that film. He inelegantly grafts the story of Ryan's professional pseudo-crisis onto the much more interesting story of his curious lifestyle and emerging relationship with Alex, never permitting these elements to interact save in the most underwritten and irksome ways. There is a significant subplot about the marriage of Ryan's sister, but although the film's treatment of such is effective at times—one scene, concerning a wall of photographs, handles a potent moment of self-realization with distinct gentleness—it feels frustratingly extraneous. The small-town Wisconsin setting and the presence of Danny McBride as Ryan's lackwit brother-in-law-to-be also lend this storyline an aura of superciliousness that doesn't mesh with the film's alleged sympathies.
Everything that rankles about Up in the Air is summed up in its concluding message, which seems to be that being laid off doesn't really matter as long as you have people who love you. It's not just that this kind of glib, feel-good moralizing is questionable amid the worst economic devastation since the Great Depression. It's that Reitman fails to capitalize on his premises in any way to deliver something more substantial. Ryan isn't redeemed in any meaningful sense by the end of the film. His frequent flier ethos is honored in almost surreal fashion, and yet drained of any value whatsoever. If anything, by the film's conclusion, Ryan's cynicism towards other people is validated. This is perplexingly at odds with the earnest and frankly condescending message to the audience: cultivate your personal relationships, because your company will almost certainly screw you.