Saturday, December 26, 2009

Up in the Air

There’s quite a lot to recommend this picture, and only a handful of things that work against it - none of which, alone or in concert, is enough to bring the picture down. It ain’t perfect, but it’s awfully good. Some reviewers are calling it George Clooney’s best movie; and while I don’t know about that, I might just go so far as to call it his most accomplished piece of work as an actor. Maybe. It’s probably not too much of a stretch for George Clooney to play a single guy who flies all over the place and isn’t much interested in commitment; but there’s more to it than that, even though most of the “more to it than that” comes in the third - and weakest - act of the film.

The first two acts are exceptional, introducing us to Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a hatchet man who works for a company that fires people for profit. He spends most of the year on the road and is trying to achieve the dubious distinction of becoming only the seventh person in history to have traveled ten million miles on American Airlines. He fires people for a living, but he genuinely tries to do a humane job of breaking the news to the newly unemployed; and he bristles when his boss takes on a young woman named Natalie (Anna Kendrick), whose bright idea is to save money for the company by introducing a new system for firing people - using video chat and the magic Internets.

If the system works, it will put an end to what Bingham has come to enjoy as his solitary way of life. When he tells us that he spent 322 days on the road last year, he finishes the sentence by saying that, unfortunately, that meant he had to spend 43 “miserable days at home," although home, a one-bedroom stark white apartment, is almost indistinguishable from the many hotels in which he stays while he's one the road - except that the apartment is not as fancy as the hotel rooms. Natalie pitches the system as a way for people like Bingham to be able to be home more often. For most people, being at home is a good thing, something they look forward to at the end of a hard day’s work. Ryan Bingham, however, actually enjoys the things that most people do only because they have to - packing for his trip, going through the motions at the airport, checking into the hotel. He speaks easily about these things. To him, they are not motions to be gone through, but part of the fun of getting to that goal of ten million miles and all the perks that go along with that. He already uses the Gold Member Express lines and lanes everywhere he goes, so when he gets his ten million he’ll also get…to meet the airline’s chief pilot. Wow.

Ryan Bingham is no bullshit artist. He genuinely believes that he prefers to be alone, that his life is full by way of his constant forward motion to achieve something - in this case, his ten million miles. At one point, he explains to Natalie that more people have walked on the moon than have flown ten million miles with American; and it’s as though he is completely oblivious to the fact that he is conflating the remarkable achievement of highly educated and skilled astronauts with that of a yo-yo whose greatest skill appears to be profiling the crowd at the airport so that he wastes as little time as possible getting through security and onto the plane. It’s no coincidence that this is a dude who never wears a pair of shoes with laces.

He also believes that, by talking one-on-one to the people he fires, he can let them down gently and convince them that he is granting them an opportunity rather than a defeat. Clooney’s deft delivery and deliberate slowness in these scenes - contrasted with his striking economy of motion in practically every other scene - makes us believe this about him, too. The best scene in the film comes not quite halfway through, when Bingham fires a character named Bob, played by J.K. Simmons. Bingham notes that Bob’s resumé indicates that he is a trained chef - and then he asks Bob how much the company that is now firing him first offered him in order to make him give up his dream of cooking. It’s almost heartbreaking to watch Simmons’ face as Bob remembers the dreams he had at an earlier point in his life.

As we get older, most of us settle into a routine and watch the years go by almost without noticing what’s happening. We do what we do because…it’s what we do, not necessarily because it’s what we always wanted to do. We’re pressured by society into work, marriage, and family because it’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s what everyone else does. When a person like Ryan Bingham manages to find another way to live, one that gives him success and happiness without the burden of the responsibilities most of us have to bear as part of the bargain of walking upright with opposable thumbs and speech, society - shown here in microcosm when Natalie questions him repeatedly about why he doesn’t want to marry or have kids, and when the people he fires ask him how he sleeps at night - pushes back against that person’s choice; and that person, rather than finding some way to connect with society in a mutually agreeable way, allows him- or herself to remain at a distance, conjuring personal happiness out of thin air - or rather, out of a manufactured desire to be more unique than people who have walked on the moon.

It is only when he meets a kindred spirit, in the form of fellow traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), that he feels the faintest inkling of a connection to another human being. They start out by comparing the cards they use when they fly and rent cars, and then they move onto drinks in the airport lounge, and then - surprise! - they end up in bed together. In an almost-too-cutesy scene they sit down across from each other at the table in the hotel room and get on their laptops to compare schedules so they can arrange their next booty call. What follows is an intricate dance of technicalities that reveals a depth to Bingham’s character that he has never imagined could be true, and which he is reluctant to accept.

In a classic romantic dramedy, Bingham’s character would find a way to accept the fact that he is more like the rest of us than he originally thought, or than he ever wanted to be; but this is a revisionist story, adapted from a novel, that ties up a few loose ends in classical fashion - but which is brave enough to remain largely in the realm of revisionism. I haven’t read the novel, so I can’t tell you if this is to the credit of novelist Walter Kirn or director Jason Reitman. What I can tell you is that there was the chance for a perfect ending, a point where they could have faded to black having barely crossed over into classicism; unfortunately, the film goes on about fifteen minutes too long after that. Those fifteen minutes are not entirely unsatisfying - there’s a cameo by Sam Elliott, and who doesn’t love Sam Elliott? - and the very end loops back around to the revisionism that underpins most of the film; but I think that they may have missed truly profound greatness by just those fifteen minutes. Having said that, though, it must also be said that the film is very, very good. Clooney is excellent - probably as good as he’s ever been - and Vera Farmiga is absolutely wickedly understated. It’s easily one of the best films of the year.


Jason L. Maier said...

I liked the movie...and it was well done. But overall I didn't find it so appealing that I would watch it more than once.

Jason L. Maier said...

Overall the picture is good and well done. It's something that was somewhat entertaining to watch but I don't think I'll see it more than the once.