An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Friday, December 4, 2009

Deflating UP IN THE AIR

I don't really get any pleasure from tipping sacred cows. Okay, I kind of do, but what I mean is that I want to like every movie I see. So it's with some reticence that I report that Jason Reitman's new Oscar-bound dramedy Up in the Air, which is currently rocking an 82 (that's "Universal Acclaim") at Metacritic, didn't really do it for me.

I've read interviews with Jason Reitman, and I can tell that he's a bright guy who genuinely wants to make good movies. Fine—I'll keep seeing whatever he comes up with. But there's something almost insulting about the way this dude has been hagiographed by the press in the months since his new movie premiered at Toronto. Some asinine movie bloggers even made the laughably hyperbolic statement that Reitman is "the new Billy Wilder," or some such bullshit.

Whatever his strengths—and I'm not convinced that he has any definable ones, other than picking good projects—Reitman is a decidedly unambitious filmmaker in an era (or at least a year) in which original American voices are flourishing in cinema more than the press would have you know. 2009 has seen a string of remarkable films by authentic, talented young American directors: Lynn Shelton, Rian Johnson, Robert Siegel, Duncan Jones (a Brit, but humor me); not to mention more established names like Steven Soderbergh, James Gray, Richard Kelly, the Coens, Tarantino. But none of their films are going to make the awards-season splash that Up in the Air was poised to make before it even opened. So that's where I'm coming from when I say that Up in the Air is not worth getting excited about, and why I'm slightly offended by the hero's welcome it and its creator have received (and will continue to receive all the way through Oscar night).

Now, the movie. It's not bad. The actors are appealing, the script has its share of clever exchanges. But for a movie ostensibly about alienation and regret, it feels fundamentally hollow and unaffecting. In her astutely skeptical review, Karina Longworth opines that the film's "inherent brightness [is] tinted blue but never significantly darkened." Yes. The main problem with Up in the Air is Reitman's inability to fully engage with the pain and melancholy that gradually overtake its protagonist's life. Reitman wasn't the right man for the job; imagine what a more emotionally nuanced filmmaker could have done with this material—someone liked the aforementioned James Gray, perhaps. Reitman attempts an unhappy ending—the twist (I'll be cryptic to avoid spoilers) is that, even though Clooney has the standard big third-act epiphany, he can't act on it. This is an improvement on Juno's cloying exeunt, but it doesn't sting the way it should—not by a long shot.

And what of Clooney himself? In recent years, the mega-star has proven himself a resourceful and inventive performer; consider the range between, say, his hilariously goofy mugging in Burn After Reading and his classicist composure in Michael Clayton. But this strikes me as a regression for him—for the first time in years, he's relying on movie-star charisma rather than acting chops, and the film feels shallower for it. It's the women of Up in the Air who come close to redeeming it: neither Vera Farmiga nor Anna Kendrick is a household name, but they probably will be once this film's Oscar campaign is over. Farmiga knocks it out of the park in exuding the smoldering mystery that entices Clooney, and when the painful truth behind that mystery is revealed, Farmiga's consistence retroactively sells it. Young Kendrick steals all her scenes as a more grounded-in-reality version of Election's Tracey Flick; the lone scene that Clooney shares with both these women is perhaps the most interesting segment of the movie.

One reason the ending (and by extension, the whole film) doesn't go down like the jagged little pill it should have is that Reitman tips his hand with a montage of recently laid-off employees extolling the importance of family and close relationships (y'know, the stuff Clooney doesn't have). The intended irony is obvious, but the schmaltzy montage itself seems truer to Reitman's softie nature. All I could think of was that episode of King of the Hill where ditzy Luanne, having taken over as the local TV weatherperson, warns of an incoming storm and exhorts her audience, "Hug your babies tight!" Reitman wants his own exhortation to be more complicated (complete with gestures toward way-we-live-now portent), but he can't disguise his true calling as a maker of slick, harmless, reassuring entertainment. And let's not forget that his visual sense is about as sophisticated as Kevin Smith's. Embrace it, Jason—you're not a poet of solitude. You're just a guy who's about to win a bunch of Oscars.

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