Saturday, August 21, 2010

Get Off Of My Cloud

Up In The Air(2009)
Directed By Jason Reitman

“Up In The Air” is the new dramedy from Jason Rietman who made films that I once upon a time, mildly enjoyed like “Juno” and “Thank You For Smoking”, and his latest just combines elements of the two, and adds an emotional cattle prod of current events.
Some have said the film is emotionally complex, but there is a difference between honest complexity and simply hedging your bets by not taking a substantial stand on anything.

George Clooney fires people for a living, traveling around the country to do what “pussy bosses” wont. We are supposed to be surprised that beneath his cold exterior lies a lonely man.

But why? If Clooney were not doing his job, would any of those he fires still have theirs? He is not the enemy but a straw man so that the employees he dismisses will associate this impersonal stranger and not their employer with the trauma of being fired. The film asks us to take the bait, and do the same thing by seeing Clooney as a heartless, “nowhere man”, who lives only to travel and has no “human connections” of his own.

He is the antithesis of the family oriented employees he dismisses, selfish and self-satisfied to their worry and woes of how to put food on the table. If Clooney is responsible for these people being fired than the factory workers at GM are responsible for Global Warming.

This attempt at “personalizing the political” fails here, because the problem is not located in a single person or personality, but in a system. Like the death-maze in “Cube” it functions without nefarious control, or purpose of any kind, it simply exists and must be navigated for its own sake. The film suggests as much, when Clooney is threatened with losing his flight privileges, showing in more of it’s trademark ironic smirk, that even he is the subject of corporate whims, a “victim’ in his own right. "Here’s the boat. Are you in it?’

What first began to irk me about the film, was that Clooney didn’t seem dissatisfied or unhappy with his life, until he meets his latest trainee (who will not really replace him, but put a computer screen between him and an ex-employee like “Coke and IBM do”) who berates him for being middle aged and dull, a commitment-phobic, terrified of death, typical Male, etc, all the while she is devising a clearly flawed internet conference/firing system, and dealing with her own failed relationship.

Likewise Clooney’s sister the “glue” of the family berates him for not being apart of their lives, “you don’t fucking exist to us”, and how much his philosophy of detachment is “bullshit”, as she sleeps in a hotel during her trail separation. Clooney’s love interest in the film, who claims to be “him with a vagina” is really the opposite

::SPOILER:: married women with kids who sees him as an exotic escape from her conventional life, which even she berates him for having. “I’m an adult” she says not long after acting surprised that he showed up at the house she gave him an address too. In the Fuck Buddy guide book, page 1, rule 1, I believe it states that if you are a married and stepping out on your spouse, and not being completely honest with your fuck buddy, you shouldn’t give them your address, to avoid such awkward conflicts. Vera Farmiga has clearly not been studying. ::SPOILEROVER

The scene that takes us from Clooney’s big speech at GoalCon to his arrival at the house is the point where the film “jumps the shark”, and becomes a writerly expression of irony, directed at the audience to connect overtly obvious dots when what was compelling about the film at all, were the times when we were uncertain.

Even if Clooney did some amateur sleuthing to find her address, how many movies have milked the “I can’t finish this speech because I’ve had an epiphany” scene, complete with romantic race to the airport. If this device had ended with anything other than failure, I would have laughed out loud, as it was I just rolled my eyes.

Clooney’s speech to his soon to be brother-in-law with cold feet, is nauseating. It is supposed to be a turning point for his character, realizing the importance of commitment, loyalty, family, love, etc, but in reality is really the only time in the movie Clooney is really bullshitting and saying something he doesn’t believe in.

“We are not swans, we are sharks”, is more honest and in keeping with his beliefs than everybody needs a co-pilot”.

The scene where he encourages a recently fired man to look at his lose of income as a “rebirth”, is not as it should have been, laughably or angrily dismissed, but thoughtfully considered. That’s right newly unemployed you always have your college degree to fall back on, provided you have one of course.

The film is so shrill in its family first, pro-romance, attitude it becomes deafening. What Rietman assumes is complexity is the fact that every female character espouses a variation on the same belief in family, marriage, long term relationships, as their own personal love lives are revealedto be crumbling, destroyed, or a “why not?” pretense, is not nuance, just flat irony masquerading as realism.

His trainee dumped by the boyfriend she followed to Nebraska (some astute student of Psychology she is), sleeps with a stranger and leaves without saying goodbye “making him feel like a whore”. Then chastises Clooney for calling his own relationship “casual”. His sister “the glue” is on her own rocks. Then there’s Farmiga who describes her ideal man, as wanting kids, nice smile, honorable blah blah blah, but still wants her to weekend Clooney because she is a “serious person”.

Clooney is drawn into connecting with “other human beings” just as it is revealed on all fronts that human connections are unstable, untenable, or based on lies. These personal hypocrisies are microcosm of the corporations promise of “the good life” and ultimate lack of loyalty to their employees.

What is intended to be an existential middle aged crisis leads us to populist misanthropy where we all become angry dismissed employees “who just need to vent” or are invited to indulge yuppie guilt ridden melancholy (Clooney has money, career, but nobody to wuv). I am hard-pressed to feel sympathy for a man who can travel anywhere in the world for free, has a stable well paying job, and can have hot milfs like Farmiga by the dozens whensoever he chooses. Woe is Clooney.

I can only echo those who have said it better, like fellow blogger Simon Marcus ( , I swear to god, he just has to stand there and smirk and namedrop MySpace for two hours, and he gets all the Oscar nominations he wants in one hand and all the ass he wants in the other hand”, or a middle aged woman said behind me in the multiplex just before the credits rolled, “So you going to write an ending to this movie or what?”. Watching Juno-esque attempts at embracing the modern; sexy texts, coordinating with matching lap-tops, and worst of all, comparing credit cards all make me want to connect with my inner Patrick Bateman (they also recall “American Psycho’s” similarly materialist fetish for comparing business cards).

“Up In the Air” and Reitman feels sorry for everyone, and everyone feels sorry for themselves. He cries a river and then splashes us with jetsam as he toots by in a speed boat blasting Elliot Smith, turning the world to a blur of dots, lines and geometric patterns like the view of the Midwest from a plane. Up In the Air, is not without it’s charms, and there are many scenes where the dialog has a ring of truth. I recognized his trainee’s look of abject horror, when Clooney states that he doesn’t want kids or to ever get married.

I’ve seen the same looks on the faces of friends, family, and girlfriends when I have said the same thing. I identified with Clooney on this point, even if I do not agree with his particular reasons for saying so. Yet this too was a straw-man, a paper tiger philosophy designed to break at the first gust of wind so that the chorus of female hypocrites in the film can have their vindication once, Clooney stands at his beloved airport reading a sign of arrivals and departures for the “first time” in his life unsure of what he will do with himself.

Unfortunately, n the narrow reality of the film, being alone always equates loneliness and fear, and being with someone seems to be more of the same, but with a nice romantic story to refer to as your, in Farmiga’s words, “real life”. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy “Up In The Air”, I laughed when prompted, and emoted when prodded, but by the end, it was little more than a rom-com mixed with Time magazine article, a series of bland, forgettable, and naive sentiments about social and emotional responsibility orbiting movie star charm. ( ex: the speech and flight to Chicago is standard rom-com last minute move, which could only be more cliché if Farmiga was getting married and Clooney surprised her at the altar.)

That being said, “Up In the Air” may also be somewhat visionary in terms of its product placement infused design, discussed in this article. I can’t say Reitman is not shrewd and clever, but I don’t think is genuinely or even superficially subversive either.

Watch this if you will. Enjoy it even. Reitman has an ear for dialog, and in if only one tracking shot of Farmiga’s nude ass over a bed, cinematically impressive, but this is not a meaningful film, as social issue (what if anything does this tell us about the recession?) or personally for the characters (what does Clooney learn, gain, or lose, from his experiences, aside from ambiguity and maybe more excessive reasons to avoid emotional contact).

“24 City” and the last few films by Chinese director Jia Zhangke have struggled to show the damage of modernity, how the lose of a factory that generations have worked at can devastate entire communities, ways of life, and cultures. He too interviews real people and weaves them in and out of semi-fictional events, but he can do so without feeling compelled to provide a saccharine story of “lonely man learns lesson to be nicer”. If that’s what you want to see just watch “Harold and Maude”, if you want to see workers discuss alienation try Zhangke’s “24 City”, or even that quirky French movie with the gnomes.

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