Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Up in the Air": Not on Board

I can't put my finger on it. Was it because the movie had so much hype? Was it because I liked Jason Reitman's last two movies ("Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno") so much and was bound to be let down? Whatever it was, "Up in the Air" disappointed greatly.

The opening credit sequence, and indeed the first 10 minutes of the movie, are filled with promise. Patchwork geographic images of U.S. terrain at 30,000 feet move like puzzle pieces set to music: inventive, playful, classic Reitman. Then a rapid montage of Ryan's (George Clooney's) packing habits tells you everything you need to know about his primary character traits. Excellent.


But then, something goes amiss. Actually, five things:

1. The tone never achieves balance. Both "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno" established a universe and tone that felt immediately comfortable in the dramedy genre (the hardest genre to write and direct, in my opinion). This one never quite does. Instead of feeling like a film that is both funny and tragic, it never shakes the feeling that it can't decide between the two.

2. The structure is off. What sets the movie in motion (the "inciting incident" in screenwriting jargon): Ryan meeting Alex? The introduction of the company's new methodology and the sharp young female mind behind it? Or is it the subplot with Clooney's sister's wedding? It isn't clear, and these elements don't flow logically from each other in terms of plot or theme. I imagine that Reitman sees the unifying element as "commitment" (everything is about commitment and how Ryan views it). Theoretically, that's true. In practice, the center does not hold.

3. The writing is uneven. Parts of the film were brilliant, particularly the dialogue between the two main female characters ("Don't get me wrong, I appreciate everything your generation did for women, but...") was one element of the movie's best sequence. But it's telling that the best writing doesn't involve Clooney's character. In fact, at the movie's moment of truth, when Ryan is set up to deliver a game-changing speech, the writing is absolutely pedestrian. Either you have the speech be lackluster on purpose (because that fits Clooney's character in that situation), and then the speech doesn't have its desired effect; or the speech is profound and well-written, and it does its job within the story. Instead, Ryan somehow manages to underperform and overdeliver. You can't have it both ways.

4. Clooney's character winds up feeling unbelievable, and in the end, there's no emotional moment for the viewer. It's actually rare to see a movie where you completely buy a character during the film, but then by the end think, "Really?" But this is one of those cases. Could there really be a guy who likes to travel as much as Ryan? Sure. A guy who is as obsessed with miles and elite clubs? Maybe. A guy who travels the country firing people? Could exist, maybe already does. But a guy who also gets paid lots of money to give motivational speeches about dropping all of your commitments? Sorry. There's a reason we never see the audience's reaction to the end of any of Ryan's speeches: that particular message simply doesn't inspire. Plus, no company would hire someone to deliver a message of anti-commitment, because every company wants to build loyalty, not destroy it.

5. The movie suffers from "alternative music" syndrome. I appreciate films that do the unexpected. Lord knows we have enough movies that press blunt cookie cutters into processed emotional dough. But you can't be different just to be different. Calling your music "alternative" reveals your utter dependence on the thing against which you are rebelling (if it goes away, you lose your power). Movies like "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," which I watched the night before, seem completely "other." "Up in the Air" felt like it was producing a few twists just for their own sake, including the very end of the movie. It's not the Hollywood ending you would expect, and that's great. But does it ultimately make a statement outside the fact that it's "unexpected"? No.

* * *

I don't mean to pick on this movie too much. "Up in the Air" is still better than 80 percent of what's out there. But especially after seeing "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," this felt like a movie that desperately wanted to have meaning, but simply wasn't willing to do the work to achieve it. Like its main character, it marches up to the edge of profundity, and then simply escapes.

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