Oscar season is always a weird time. There are five – or in last year’s and this coming year’s case, ten – movies that the American critical consensus tries to convince you are the best of the year. And, simply due to the vagaries of personal preference, that’s not always true. No one will ever fully agree with a list like that.
Now, often, an awards film will divide audiences. No Country for Old Men had admirers and those who hated it. Precious was similar in its divisiveness. There’s something to the idea that if you divide an audience so dramatically, you might be on to something. Even if you hate the film, something about it resonated with you, just in a bad way. Which makes a film that’s blah and mediocre possibly even worse than one you hate. There’s not much to latch onto in that case.
So, Up in the Air.
Simply put, this is the story of Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a man who works for a firm that allows giant corporations to outsource their layoffs. GM needs to cut 2000 factory workers? Ryan comes in for a few days and tells them instead of HR. He’s done this for a long time, and has made an art of it. He lives out of a suitcase, traveling most of the year. The remaining time is spent in a rented suite he’s done nothing with. He meets Alex (Farmiga) in a hotel bar, finding someone with a similar life, and so they hook up. At the same time, Natalie (Kendrick) is hired at the company, and has come up with a revolutionary new tactic: keep all the employees in-house, and videoconference the layoffs. Ryan doesn’t like this one bit, and thinks Natalie lacks experience in the firing biz, so he has her join him on his latest tour of duty.
More stuff happens, but I’ll get to the resolutions later. It’s hard to work with this movie because it’s so aggressively meh. I’m not inspired in either direction to write about it. It’s not a terrible movie at all: Clooney is more than serviceable, and the dialogue is decent. But I don’t understand all the pre-Oscar hoopla. For all the critical talk about what a fantastic movie it is, it’s your standard-issue “satisfied loner finds out he’s not so satisfied” picture. Ryan is so content and smug about his nomadic, commitment-free lifestyle that you know from minute one he’s going to not be so content and smug about it later. And the big twist…
…where Alex, the fling he wants to turn into something more serious, turns out to be a married woman with kids who was using Ryan to escape her family, wasn’t that hard to guess. Before the big reveal, Queta said to me, “She’s gonna be married, right?” BINGO.
For all the backlash Juno had, I enjoyed the film. Annoying moments aside, it was funny, Ellen Page was good, and it had one of the best character turnarounds in recent memory (Garner as the uptight WASP and Bateman as supercool rocker become sympathetic and asshole by movie’s end). Ultimately, this movie became more respected than Juno, but Juno was a more enjoyable, more unique film. I was on Team J-Reitman after Juno, but given his pissyness after not winning anything for this film, I quickly left the team. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I don’t understand why anyone would stump so hard for it.
A note about Oscars: Anna Kendrick was nominated for Supporting Actress for this. My only real experience with her acting prior to UitA was the Twilight films, which are no showcase for anyone’s acting ability, and Scott Pilgrim, in which she did just fine. She was an actress with a lot of buzz around her for a while, so given her nomination here, I was interested to see how good she was. All I can ask is, “She was nominated for this?” Honestly, her performance as Natalie simply seemed like an extension of her work as Jessica in Twilight. They’re both Type-A neurotics who look like they’re about to snap at any moment. It’s not to say she’s a bad actress (she’s not), but merely playing the next evolutionary step from a Twilight character does not an Oscar performance make.
UitA is an odd beast for “Stupid White People.” Usually, this category is reserved for bad movies about privileged white folks gravely dealing with problems they created themselves. The movie isn’t all that bad, and it’s not all that serious in tone. It gets up its own ass a bit at the end, when Ryan starts wanting to be a human being, starting to care about Alex (and the side journey where he saves his sister’s marriage to Kenny Powers). But, like other films in the category, it’s hard to be so sympathetic about a guy who spent his entire life distancing himself from people simply because he likes a girl now. And that all that bullshit with his family can be cured because he gave a pep talk to Kenny Powers. At the end of the day, he’s still a rich-as-fuck (or at least not-poor-as-fuck) white dude in charge of his life now whining because he just figured out that maybe companionship is kinda cool.
(The most obvious stop on the Obvious Train involves this: He has a side business as a motivational speaker, peddling some philosophy about keeping your “backpack” as light as possible. Meaning, of course, to keep as few material and human connections as possible. He gets a spot at the giant speaking conference in Vegas, which ends up being during the time he falls hard for Alex. What happens? Sing along with me – he goes on stage, starts the speech, balks, mumbles something, and runs off stage. THAT SCENE HAS NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE IN CINEMA HISTORY, RIGHT?
Also on the Obvious Train: One of Natalie’s first firings casually states that she’s going to kill herself. You get three guesses.)
This was a hard film to wrestle with, again, because it’s not horrible. It’s not great. It’s not really anything. It just happened. But I’m comfortable with its inclusion in the canon of “Stupid White People.” Ultimately, it’s about a man of means digging his own hole and crying about it. Its saving grace is that it’s not as annoying as others in the category. But despite its attempts, it’s difficult to feel sorry for George Clooney playing a guy who enjoys casual sex and frequent flyer miles.
If he could find a way to use the frequent flyer miles for sex, then he’s golden.