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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

All hot air?

Jason Reitman lets audiences off the hook with a false sense of ethical consciousness

Posted By on Wed, Dec 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM

It's going to rack up a boatload of Oscars and it doesn't deserve them. Jason Reitman's Up In The Air has all the right ingredients: a clever script, great acting, recession-era issues and a feel-good story tinged with just enough reality to make you think it's a lot more profound than it is. Glance at the reviews on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes and you'll see critics falling over themselves to sing its praises. What they seem to miss, however, is the film's underlying condescension toward the working class, confused ethics and predictable plot turns. Chalk the sleight of hand up to Reitman's tight pacing, slick dialogue, and emphatic characters. Together they do a terrific job of hiding the fact his movie is using urgent and timely issues to sell a story that, in the end, questions nothing and challenges no one. 

Don't get me wrong; Up In The Air is fine entertainment that leaves you with a feeling of in-the-moment satisfaction. Anyone over 30 will simply appreciate the adultness of the film, and Reitman infuses it with the kind of amiable energy Cameron Crowe once effortlessly produced. But wait a couple of days and see if you can muster anything more profound than generalized goodwill for the movie. The serious underlying themes that supposedly feed Reitman's drama — ruthless corporate pragmatism, alienation, ethical malaise — turn out to be window dressing for a shallow tale of pseudo-redemption.

George Clooney is Ryan Bingham, a devout bachelor and silky smooth corporate hatchet man who delivers 'every man for himself' motivational speeches between his gun-for-hire layoff assignments. For most of the year Ryan lives an airport-hotel-airport existence, and he enjoys every impersonal, privileged moment. Racking up frequent-flyer miles and capitalizing on the failing economy, all is good in his hermetically sealed life. Enter the anti-hero's wake-up call: Two women who will challenge his assumptions about life and relationships. The first is Alex (Vera Farmiga), a sultry fellow business traveler who says, "Think of me as yourself with a vagina," but stirs emotions he didn't know he had. The second is young go-getter Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who wants to make Ryan's beloved job obsolete through the miracle of Internet-based call centers. But first she must go on the road to experience firsthand the emotional complexities of firing real live human beings. Before you can say "Oscar nomination," Ryan's well-constructed mask begins to crack and a real human being begins to peek out at the world.

Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner's script is smart, and layered with lots of yummy one-liners. Clooney is the perfect leading man, using his unflappable, roguish charm to smooth Ryan's uncaring edges to an irresistible shine. He and Farmiga have real chemistry and their foreplay banter over car rental companies and travel perks is almost worth the price of admission alone. Similarly, Kendrick brings just the right mix of corporate callousness and perky humanity to her epiphany-bound upstart. 

But there's no avoiding that Up In The Air is a superficial dramedy passing itself off as caustically and meaningfully relevant. Not only do we never get past the highly polished surface of Clooney's character, his evolution is so tidy and detached from the realities of the film's central subject that you begin to suspect Reitman is exploiting the very people he supposedly champions.

Nothing makes this clearer than his close-up inclusions of real-life individuals who have lost their jobs decrying the cruelties of the free-market system. Sprinkled amidst the honest expressions of loss, hurt and fear are character actors like Zach Galafianakis and J.K. Simmons, who are soothed by Clooney's glossy bullshit sales pitch to go gentle into that good night. Ryan's prefab patter makes for clever writing, but held up alongside real people who have suffered real misfortune, it makes clear that Up In The Air's toothless critique on the culture of downsizing is not a comment on the precarious nature of our economy or the brutal indifference corporations feel toward their workers, but rather a cheap narrative gimmick.

In the end, it's not the soul-crushing realities of his despicable job that transform Ryan, but rather a weekend trip home to attend his estranged sister's wedding. In sentimental Hollywood fashion, he makes good on his role as the big brother, romantically connects with Farmiga and ends up regaining his humanity. It's a plot point that underlines how Reitman has spent most of the film warning us that you can't go home again — then, in his final act, pretending that you can. Clooney's newly discovered soul signals that new beginnings come from cruel endings, which means Reitman has vindicated the very platitudes the first half of his movie seem to ridicule. 

In its final moments Up In The Air brings back the real world unemployed to pacify our concerns and let us know that even though they lost their jobs, their families have been there to provide them with love and support. Nothing to see here. Move along. It's kind of like traveling through an airport, isn't it?

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to


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