Monday, December 7, 2009

Of Swans and Sharks

How deep do you want to go? This is the question that faces all discerning film-goers as they sit down in their seats. When one begins to analyze and critique a film does one examine its success in being an example of formalism? Will you look at plotting and structure? At mise-en-scene? How the film's style informs its content? In these arenas Up In the Air is an unqualified success and for many audiences (and very likely Oscar voters) this will be more than enough. Its timely, well-made and well-acted and, to its credit, wears its symbolism on its sleeve. But as I left the theater I wondered, couldn't there be more?
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) lives his life in perfectly organized increments always on the move in order to live the most elite, hassle free life-style one can imagine. He is a man who not only lives without enduring human attachments, but actively works to promote his lifestyle as a motivational speaker. His day-job is also reliant on his unique ability to both inspire and detach as he is part of a firm that is hired by corporations to terminate employees. When a young upstart (Anna Kendrick) comes to the company with a concept of firing by webcam, potentially hobbling Bingham's jet-set lifestyle, Bingham protests and insists he take her on the road to teach her how to REALLY fire someone.
As an ingenue full of optimism Kendrick serves as a nice-counterpoint to Clooney as well as a solid comedic foil. He challenges her optimism and general world-view and while their lines are clever as they banter back and forth, they never carry any real weight. In the film one is either hokey and corny for wanting to settle down and maintain a relationship or is slick, cool and hollow while ultimately remaining detached. The film never really finds a middle ground between these two. This is a film of slick and polished surfaces much like Clooney and his erstwhile paramour Alex (Vera Farmiga) who describes herself as like Clooney's Bingham ("I'm you with a vagina"). The film turns, as one may expect a mainstream dramedy like this would, however it's message, something about how we all need a co-pilot, is ultimately being mocked by the characters as much as they eventually embrace it. Attempts at verisimilitude and timeliness are given gravitas by following on the tradition of Reds and When Harry met Sally by sporadically inter-cuttng with talking head segments with real people who've been fired. They're poignant but inessential. Ostensibly a good deal of the audience is now VERY familiar with the feelings that come with being terminated so the film isn't presenting anything new and it never really points TOWARD anything.

Mind you, there is a lot to like and enjoy about the film. I was very wrapped up in it as I was watching. The script, while surface, is sharp and compact. It lets us know the characters and then twists and reverses where appropriate. It hits its comedic and dramatic beats well and knows how to effectively transition between both modes. It also packs the film to the brim with reliable character actors all doing great work and bouncing off each other well. J.K. Simmons renders all the real terminated pointless with his great scene as Kendrick's first fire. Danny McBride and Melanie Lynskey make for adorable grounded relatives of Clooneys and Zach Galifinakas reigns it in but still manages to be hilarious in a brief moment. Sam Elliot is also used to great effect in a scene that relies more on iconography then anything else.
No matter what broader, trend or lesson that can be garnered from Up In the Air, one thing is clear; that Farmiga has better chemistry with Clooney than anyone he's been paired with onscreen outside of Brad Pitt. Farmiga may be familiar to viewers as the distinctly cat-less psychologist in the Departed (though she always be Mrs. Joey Gazelle to me from Running Scared). She wears her age and experience as a badge of honor and is effortlessly sexy and competent. She too wishes to avoid entanglements but can't help get caught up in her very adult (in terms of maturity more so than content) flirtation with Clooney. The film never riffs on her age or underlines that she's sexy in spite of anything, she just comes to the film fully formed and her confidence and innate sense of how she defines herself is very appealing. Similarly with Clooney, this part fits him like a glove. Virtually any other actor would be an abysmal failure in this role. Bingham, for al intents and purposes is an anti-social shmuck. He mistakes knowledge and status for for genuine human worth. Any number of actors would make the character unbearable but Clooney seduces everyone; from employees he's terminating to the audience. We even emulate him to some degree so that when the time comes when he lowers his defenses and has to be vulnerable it has that much more impact. Kendrick, the third part of the unconventional family unit, will be a revelation to audiences who missed her from her stage work, wonderful appearance in Rocket Science and as the most appealing thing about the Twilight series.
I've no doubt that audience and Oscar voters will leave the theater having enjoyed the film. Reitman as screenwriter and director has a firm grasp of his craft and has now made three film where protagonists eventually warm to relationships they once kept at arms length. I eagerly look forward for Reitman to bring the audience in closer and let us see deeper into his films beyond the slick, shiny veneer of his craft.


Football Chick said...

Interesting take. With all the Oscar buzz, are there other movies from this year that you think are flat-out better than this one?

El Gigante said...

It depends what you're looking for. I certainly don't think this is the best movie of the year but it has a lot of Oscar friendly elements so I think its likely to win.

In terms of competitors I think Invictus and Precious could be its only major competition. Unless Lovely Bones courts a wide audience and gets a major last minute critical turnaround it won't be The Lovely Bones.

As for movies I thought that were better;Inglorious Basterds, In the Loop, Up, Drag Me to Hell, Anvil: The Story of Anvil, Hurt Locker, Fantastic Mr. Fox, An Education, Brothers Bloom, District 9, Thirst, Where the Wild Things Are and A Serious Man were all 2009 movies that I felt to be a bit more meaty in terms of my cinematic enjoyment than UITA. From that list I think A Serious Man, Hurt Locker, An Education and Up are the ones that might be contenders against it Oscar-Wise. Very, very outside chance for Basterds and Wild Things.

El Gigante said...

Oh shoot, I forgot Nine. Nine, if it hits with audiences could also be a contender. What musicals connect with audiences are damn near impossible to predict. On the one hand the cast and crew on paper are amazing. But given the weird inside-baseball/Fellini background and foreign pedigree a lot of people could walk out scratching their heads.

Football Chick said...

I feel like Nine would have to be the greatest movie of all time to get anything like a Chicago-like reception from the Oscars. That story and music was so much more accessible/familiar. Don't you think?

El Gigante said...

In theory yes. Though if you break it down on paper Chicago SHOULDN'T be popular. It's about venal, selfish criminals who lie, cheat and kill to be celebrities.

Oh wait. Of course its popular. :)