up in the air Directed by Jason Reitman | Written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner | With George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, and Jason Bateman
I spent last weekend putting together my list of the year's ten best films for the annual critics' polls organized by indieWIRE, the Village Voice, and Film Comment. All three of them are also polling critics on the best films of the decade, so I also came up with my 50 favorite releases dating back to 2000. I've never taken these exercises very seriously because at best I see only about a third of the movies distributed every year, and there's so much consensus among critics anyway that my list isn't likely to surprise anyone. But the experience was particularly illuminating this year, because while I was in the process of doing all this I was also trying to figure out what my problem is with Up in the Air, which is certain to be nominated for an Oscar but would be lucky to make my top 40 for 2009.
In toting up my 2009 ballots, the first thing I noticed was that, by almost any measure, this has been an incredibly crummy year for movies. The reason isn't hard to figure out: when the recession began in late 2007, funding for indie projects began to dry up, and the bad economy only accelerated the trend of big studios shutting down their specialty divisions, which have generally produced their more intelligent and adventurous releases. So even more than usual, the American movie market has been dominated by big, dumb entertainments aimed at subliterate teenagers. Perversely, as studios gave us less value their numbers improved from 2008: the recession has been great for box office because, even at $11 a ticket, a movie is still one of the cheapest nights out. So when good, smart people bite into Up in the Air and find out it's a baloney sandwich, a fair number of them are going to be grateful it's not a shit sandwich.
When I was trying to come up with my list for the decade, I decided to look up the Oscar winners for the past nine years. That turned out to be another lesson in the triumph of the good over the great. OK, I'll give you A Beautiful Mind (2001), Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Departed (2006), and—I'm a good sport—even Crash (2005) and No Country for Old Men (2007). But can anyone make a serious argument for Gladiator (2000), Chicago (2002), or Slumdog Millionaire (2008) as an important movie? Can you even remember which Lord of the Rings chapter won the Oscar? Do any of these last six movies deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Away From Her, Cache, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Far From Heaven, Gosford Park, Grizzly Man, Half Nelson, A History of Violence, There Will Be Blood, Vera Drake, Waking Life, Wendy and Lucy, or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days?
Of course, even Slumdog Millionaire—a British production with no stars—was too far-out for the major studios, who expect their high-grossing and well-reviewed product to be treated with greater respect than it got last year. Both WALL-E (worldwide gross: $521 million) and The Dark Knight ($1 billion) were nudged out of the Best Picture nominations by Slumdog and four other small pictures (Milk, The Reader, Frost/Nixon, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). As a result, the voting process has been drastically revised this year. The number of nominees has been doubled, from five to ten, so there's less chance of a top grosser getting knocked out of the running. And Academy voters, instead of choosing a single movie, will submit a ranked list of all ten nominees, to prevent the winner being chosen by a plurality. No matter how passionate one might feel toward a particular nominee, he'll be casting at least a fraction of his vote for . . . Up in the Air.
I may be resistant to the movie because, though I keep reading about all its Oscar buzz, no one I know who's seen it thinks it deserves an Oscar. "Is Up in the Air chugging toward a best picture Oscar come early 2010?" Michael Phillips wrote in a Chicago Tribune blog post the day after the movie premiered at the Toronto film festival. "That's what my neighbor here at the Cromwell Furnished Suites, Scott Tobias of the Onion, predicted just now, in the hallway." Yet Phillips gave Up in the Air a reasonable three-star review. Even Tobias expressed some reservations about it in a podcast at the Onion's A.V. Club—where Keith Phipps wrote the actual review, grading the movie a solid B.
None of that matters, though, because any kind of Oscar buzz becomes self-perpetuating. Enter "Up in the Air" and "Oscar buzz" into Google and you'll get more than 31,000 hits—including my own contrarian blog post from Toronto, written two days after Phillips's, and my capsule review, published last week.
Now that the National Board of Review, which prides itself on successfully predicting the Oscar race, has named Up in the Air the best movie of 2009, perhaps we should take stock of this story that's about to join the ranks of Grand Hotel, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The Best Years of Our Lives, All About Eve, An American in Paris, On the Waterfront, Lawrence of Arabia, Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, and Unforgiven. George Clooney, the most adored man in America after Barack Obama, plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate heel who specializes in downsizing other companies. Lacking all but the most casual personal relationships, he spends ten months a year flying around the country, enjoying swank hotels and rental cars as he works his way down numbered lists telling people they've been canned. (The movie is a product-placement wet dream, with Hertz and American Airlines prominently featured.)
Even more dismaying than the Oscar buzz are the rapidly proliferating reviews that call Up in the Air "a movie for our times." This ridiculous sobriquet was undoubtedly inspired by the opening montage of Bingham's unlucky targets reacting to the news that they've been fired, a motif that's repeated later. Writer-director Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking) concocted these sequences, casting not only professional actors but real people who'd recently lost their jobs, and they're heartbreaking. These are average middle-class people with families to support, people who've invested years of their lives in a job only to be tossed into the street with nothing but a severance package and Bingham's phony pep talk about starting a new chapter. They're hurt, angry, and frightened, peering into the abyss of unemployment and financial ruin. Even if you're not part of the 10 percent of America that makes up this group, you almost certainly know someone in it.
But Up in the Air isn't really about these people—they're just the topical garnish for a modern Cary Grant movie. The center of the story is Clooney's graying cool-cat bachelor, who sings the praises of his jet-set existence and moonlights as a motivational speaker, advising people to minimize their personal attachments. Life is good when you have no family, and every meal goes on the expense account, and every hotel bar offers the promise of Vera Farmiga, playing another jaded frequent flier, who's eager to compare platinum credit cards with you, come up to your room, and sashay around wearing nothing but your necktie knotted around her first-class hips. All others fly coach.
In the movie's skewed moral universe, Bingham is the good guy, because back at the home office a snippy, overachieving college grad named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has convinced his heartless boss (Jason Bateman) to cut costs by pulling him off the road and having him fire people via webcam. "There's a dignity to the way I do it," Bingham protests, in what must be the movie's most dubious statement. Hoping to road-test this new plan, the boss sends Keener to accompany Bingham on his next run, and when they show up at a company in Detroit to carry out a particularly vicious round of layoffs, they find a video monitor waiting for them in the conference room. Keener's inaugural victim, sitting in the next room but unable to see them except on-screen, is a hulking 57-year-old man who knows damn well what this "new chapter" holds for him, and when he unexpectedly bursts into tears, Reitman makes sure to show Bingham wincing, just as we do. Buck up, America—George Clooney feels your pain.
Naturally Bingham must be shown the error of his ways, and Reitman dutifully pivots in the third act as the hatchet man arrives in northern Wisconsin for the marriage of his guileless kid sister (Melanie Lynskey) and her idiot boyfriend (Danny McBride). Their tacky, earthbound life together is the antithesis of Bingham's, and Reitman—a movie brat whose father, Ivan, directed Ghostbusters, Stripes, and Meatballs—treats them so warmly that he probably didn't notice how condescending the movie is toward them. Like most of us, they're the sort of people who would be glad to see a decent entertainment like this for $11. Walking home together, they might even see Reitman's flight overhead, gliding toward the Kodak Theatre.
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