Up in the Air (5/10)

Ryan Bingham’s life is tidy and uncluttered, just the way he likes it. Jetting from town to city to metropolis and back again, firing hundreds of workers, because the companies of these employees don’t have the guts to fire them themselves. So they outsource the job of firing them to Ryan’s employer, who send him and 22 other people zooming across the nation on a daily basis, a handy rehabilitation packet in their hands and the words “you’ve been let go” always on their lips. Ryan is the company’s best employee, always eager to hop on a plane or spend a few hours in an airport lobby, and the movie’s premise is clearly a set-up to illustrate the lonely and isolated life Ryan leads and the importance of personal relationships in our daily lives. In fact, it is painfully clear, to the point where the movie feels less like one man’s personal journey and more like a series of pre-arranged vignettes that Ryan must travel through in order to become enlightened.
The┬ámost blatant example of which involves Ryan’s seminar and in-progress book, “What’s in Your Backpack?”, in which he offers listeners to pile all their worldly belongings and relationships into one bag and feel the incredible weight of it all before emptying everything and noticing the lightness of being that ensues. “It’s kind of exhilarating, isn’t it?” he says. That’s it. The lack of anything more substantial shows how the seminar and the book are merely lead-ins to that inevitable scene where Ryan pauses mid-speech and walks off stage, realizing the inherent hollowness of what he’s been preaching all this time. The seminar is reminiscent of the excruciatingly bland tripe Aaron Eckhart’s character spouts in his “A-Okay” seminar in “Love Happens.”

This isn’t to say that there isn’t some fun to be had with “Up in the Air.” George Clooney’s charm is positively effervescent, and the character of Ryan fits him like a glove. Jason Bateman as his boss gives an understated severity and quiet comedy to his role, and though his scenes are few and far between each one strikes just the right chord. JK Simmons (who has been in all 3 Jason Reitman movies) and Zack Galifianakis each have small but poignant cameos, playing the roles of employees fired by Ryan. Danny McBride as the down-to-Earth fiance of Ryan’s sister is a welcome respite from the insufferable cockiness and dick-measuring obsessiveness of Ryan and his love interest, Alex.

Alex is played by Vera Farmiga, and along with Anna Kendrick playing Natalie, the two represent almost everything that is wrong with the movie, despite being two very fine actresses in their own right. Natalie is the young doe-eyed upstart whose plans to revamp Ryan’s job into a firing-by-video-chat format to reduce the inflammatory costs of plane tickets and hotel rooms. She’s the catalyst for the whole plot of the movie, which involves Ryan flying her around and showing her the ropes. And, surprise surprise, she realizes it’s not that simple, while Ryan is challenged by her views about personal relationships. Their entire dynamic doesn’t have one second of spontaneity, and neither does Ryan’s over-hyped relationship with Alex.

The luminous and spunky Vera Farmiga is not to blame, as she plays the character perfectly as written. What’s to blame is the awful script. The second she and Ryan meet their chemistry (Clooney and Farmiga are the only reasons their characters are bearable) erupts and they’re acting like old friends and star-crossed lovers, with Alex giving cringe-worthy lines such as this, “Come on, show some hubris. Impress me.” It’s not the chemistry of real people that we see, it’s the chemistry of stars acting like some superior and unbelievable version of real people. Even though, in the long run, their chemistry does become believable, it doesn’t develop like that, instead popping into existence out of nowhere, pre-packaged like so much else in the movie, made all the more frustrating by a last minute effort to cram pathos into the script that only destroys what tenuous believability their relationship has already achieved.

One might argue that such efforts are only to illustrate how there are no easy answers in the movie, just like life, but when your entire film is stuffed to brimming with plastic catchphrases, transparent characters, and a maddening tidiness that staunchly refuses to resemble any kind of messy reality, the illustration seems sadly incompatible with the rest of it. And it’s why, by the end, despite zippy cinematography, a few excellent performances, and an uplifting message about the importance of people in our daily lives, the good intentions are almost completely undone by its artificiality. “Up in the Air” desperately wants you to believe it is sincere and somehow real, but just like airline food, the taste is cardboard, the texture stringy, and the flavor, though glaringly strong, is somehow, absent.

One Response to “Up in the Air (5/10)”

  1. Saw this the other day, it was alright nothing special. There was some funny bits and some just not like the cancer joke and the credit card chatup lines haha.

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