Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart crawl out of their Netflix envelope-insulated dens and find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are earning air miles. This week they lose their shit when Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air crash lands.
So Ben, the director of Juno strikes again! This time, with perhaps the most vexing and offensive film of the Oscar season. (Hey, just like two years ago!) Not the worst—I still love Clooney, even if this is his blandest and most forgettable work in years—but Up in the Air conspicuously sums up what’s wrong with the Oscarbrow: it’s a dumb movie cloaked in respectability, quirky enough—even if it doesn’t have a hamburger telephone—to seem Original without ever actually being unique. Or, you know, smart.
I read so much about this buzzy movie that while watching it for the first time I felt like I’d already seen it. But for those of you who don’t know: gracefully aging George plays a man who pushes the American reliance on corporations to its absurd extreme; he’s into status and brand loyalty, his is a life lived in airplane cabins, one of swipe cards, exclusive membership programs, frequent flier miles and hotel shuttle buses; he thrives off of motion and a lack of baggage. (He also gives lectures on his particular philosophy of, uh, corporate Buddhism: shed your possessions and fly first class!) And he works for a company that thrives off the failure of capitalism—Clooney and his peers fire employees for other companies too gutless to do the hatcheting themselves.
The movie’s dripping with zeitgeist and yet already feels dated. (For starters, its airline check-in scenes seem soooo pre-underpants bomber.) Worst of all, like Juno and Reitman fils’ first film Thank You For Smoking, it’s smugly conservative but hides its politics behind the hipness of cynicism and alienation. What’s this movie really about, Ben? For starters, it’s about how kids—represented by up-and-comer Anna Kendrick, Clooney’s technophilic Gen Y colleague—think they can do everything with a computer and a flow chart. But you know what, Ben? Life isn’t all text messages and teleconferencing. Isn’t there Something to Be Said for the dignity of interpersonal connection? Reitman’s backlash against today’s youth feels like overcompensation for the criticisms leveled at him for the cutesy indulgences of Juno.
Oh, except Jason Reitman doesn’t read criticism; a recent Q&A in New York reveals he has no idea who Armond White is. Which would be fine if (a) Reitman wasn’t, you know, a member of the film industry and (b) he weren’t so intent on using straw man bullshit to tear down his detractors. After reporter Jada Yuan tells Reitman that White called Up in the Air “Swill” (and his other films “Rubbish” and “Crap”), the director says: “I would be curious to hear what [this] Armond [fellow] thinks of The Insider, a film that goes: ‘Smoking bad! Tobacco people bad!’ And for me that’s so boring. But, look, for some that’s the experience they want and those movies exist for them. I want people to talk.” Oh, right, you’ve sure got White’s number there. I ain’t no Armond apologist, Ben, but suggesting that the only people who won’t like your film are knuckleheads who like their themes and morality clear-cut is so delusional, arrogant and aggrandizing. It’s classic message-board idiocy: “if you don’t like this movie, why don’t you go watch [the latest Hollywood blockbuster]?”
Up in the Air is exactly what Reitman thinks it isn’t—easily digestible bullshit. Its ultimate moral is, we all need somebody! Like, to love! (Go marriage and traditional family!) Eventually, that plane’s gotta land, Ben, and we need to learn how to be grounded—how to stop running away from our extant and potential families and learn how to Be There, for them and for ourselves. That Clooney’s character—spoiler!—ultimately tries to do this and fails makes the movie Poignant, I think, and certainly Complex, right? Because the ending isn’t, like, totally happy. Really, Ben, this movie is one long unconvincing cliché that pretends it isn’t. But people seem to be buying it. And I think that’s how an Oscar contender is born.
One more thing: much has been made of the fact that Reitman hired non-professionals who had really been laid off to play those downsized in the movie. Many of them exude an affecting desperation, vulnerability, anger and sense of betrayal. But there’s nothing else in the film to suggest that Reitman’s sympathies lie with the working class. He even, when Clooney fires J. Jonah Jameson J.K. Simmons, tries to lend legitimacy to the argument that people should be happy to be fired, because it frees them to follow their dreams. Did you want to tell Reitman to go fuck himself right then? Maybe even punch him in the face? Cos I did.
Gee, Henry, you really hated this movie, huh? I understand how you feel: Films that are completely forgettable and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but insist on disguising themselves in the rhetoric of high art (like Nine), or at least smart entertainment, are so much more aggravating, and often much dumber than self-aware popcorn fair (for instance, Drag Me To Hell). This seems like a clear-cut case of just such delusional self-aggrandizing, a mediocre George Clooney Movie cloaked in calculated quirk and all kinds of empty gestures towards topical cleverness—check out this snappy airport security check montage! look at all these unemployed people we hired for a day! OMG, George Clooney is sexting Vera Farmiga! Really, though, this is just that same old story about a workaholic realizing (or being told) that he needs a family to justify his existence.
Not that the premise of a guy whose job is to fuck people over isn’t interesting. It made me think of that scene in Best Doc Oscar-winner Bowling for Columbine when Michael Moore embeds himself with the only person in Flint, Michigan who still has a stable job: The dude paid to lock people who can’t pay their rent out of their own homes. That was one of Columbine’s least belabored and most emotionally raw sequences, but Reitman, by throwing “real people who were fired” into a romantic comedy that really has nothing to do with unemployment, is effectively reducing the plight of America’s growing jobless armies to an offensive gimmick. The idea that he’s getting millions of dollars and (potentially) golden statues for doing so is all the more irritating.
Another better film that Up In The Air reminded me of, partly because of Ryan Bingham’s (Clooney) side-gig as a motivational speaker who gets off on preaching his way of life in darkened hotel conference rooms, was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, wherein Tom Cruise plays sleazy sexpert Frank T.J. Mackey with delightful abandon. That Oscar-nominated film (and performance) was infinitely more genuine in its attempt to tap into some broadly defined American zeitgeist—a project inherently better suited to Andersonian epic-ness than Reitmanian quirk-com—whereas here all the recession-speak is deployed to keep us from accidentally taking this for a colorized late-30s Cary Grant screwball comedy. Cruise’s Mackey was essentially destroyed and reborn by the end of Magnolia, but Bingham’s epiphany costs him, what, a booty call? His cold, hyper-capitalist, air miles-coveting approach to every relationship in his life is reaffirmed when his one attempt to break out of his isolation turns into a cruel joke at his expense. That Clooney plays the part like he’s sleep-striding (however enjoyably) through Ocean’s 15 only reinforces the sense that we’re watching a sheep in wolf’s clothing—that is, an essentially toothless, warm and fluffy dimwit disguised as something sharp, cunning and maybe even a little dangerous.
These grievances were perhaps less plainly evident with the supporting cast, no? I mean, aside from Sam Elliott reprising his Big Lebowski role (in a captain’s costume rather than a cowboy get-up), and a frustratingly under-used and scruffy beard-sporting Jason Bateman as Bingham’s boss. As the player who plays out the player, Farmiga portrays the shape-shifting female foil to Clooney’s stubborn lead with greater conviction and emotional commitment than her co-star. The film’s revelation, for my Twilight-virgin eyes at least, was Kendrick as the upstart new recruit at the firing agency. If there’s any optimism to be wringed from this ludicrous, reverse-mid-life-crisis comedy it’s from her character, apparently the only one able to not only learn from her mistakes, but also then act on those lessons. So, inasmuch as I completely agree with you that there’s some very classist stuff being smuggled in here under the guise of engaging with the national recessionomics discourse, I don’t think that Up In The Air is quite the anti-youth Juno backlash that you suggested it was. That’s not to say that Reitman didn’t intend it to be just that. Like all too many middlebrow filmmakers, he confidently throws all his half-baked ideas up in the air with little understanding of how well they’ll fly or where they might lead him.
Categories Baited: Best Picture, Best Actor (George Clooney), Best Supporting Actress (Anna Kendrick), Best Screenplay Adaptation (Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner).
(photo credit: Dale Robinette, copyright © 2009 DW STUDIOS L.L.C. and COLD SPRING PICTURES. All Rights Reserved.)