Monday, December 14, 2009
Ryan’s freewheeling lifestyle gets put in jeopardy when young computer programmer Natalie (Anna Kendrick) comes up with a way to do his job over the internet. Dreading the thought of being tied to a desk, Bingham convinces his boss (Jason Bateman) that Natalie needs to see what it’s like to do the job face to face before implementing her plan. The two then set off to relieve hundreds of American workers of the burden of employment, stopping at various famous locations along the way to take pictures of a cardboard cut-out of Bingham’s sister and her future husband for a wedding present.
While it is Bingham’s job that drives the plot forward, the movie is more concerned with the idea that happiness is impossible without meaningful relationships. That's fine, but then the movie takes it further to say that happiness is impossible without a spouse and children. This is most clearly expressed by Natalie, who looks at Alex and Ryan as though they were insane for not wanting a more traditional relationship.
At times the movie shows some ambivalence towards this idea - Natalie is dumped by her boyfriend, one of Ryan’s sisters is shown having separated from her husband, and there’s a final twist regarding Alex that I won’t reveal. But that ambivalence is undermined by the film’s closing montage of (real) fired workers talking about how their wives and children gave them the strength to cope with their situation. Look, whatever helps a person deal with something as serious as losing a job, I’m for it. But the implication here is that those without family, like Bingham, are somehow worse off than they are. Ah yes, poor little rich boy. This is the film’s final word on the subject. It kind of reminds me of the scene in They Live where Roddy Piper puts on his special sunglasses, looks up at a billboard, and instead of the ad that should be there sees simply the words “marry and reproduce”. No doubt the evil aliens from that film would approve of Up In the Air’s message.
Still, as Roger Ebert often says, it’s not what a movie is about, but how it’s about it. And for the most part, Up In the Air is a well made, enjoyable, and funny film. Clooney is perfectly cast. I can’t imagine any other actor making this character likeable as he goes about destroying lives while bragging about his fancy hotel and rental car membership cards. Vera Farmiga is excellent, as well. With this film she should make it onto the ‘A’ list, and hopefully won’t have to star in crap like Orphan again anytime soon. The one weak link for me is Anna Kendrick’s Natalie, though I blame writer/director Jason Reitman rather than the actress. As written, the character is a comic relief caricature that just doesn’t seem to exist in the same universe as Clooney and Farmiga’s nuanced, believable characters.
I’ve already mentioned my distaste for the film’s trite message that marriage and kids are the only road to happiness. I also can’t help but think, given the current economic climate, that more of substance should have been said about all the people Bingham fires. Mostly, though, the movie just plays being fired for laughs. And yeah, watching Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons respond to the loss of their jobs is funny. But losing a job in real life isn’t. The movie only offers one moment in which we see just how serious that can be, when we learn that one of the people who lost their jobs committed suicide. The scene does have some power, but its main purpose seems to be moving the plot in a new direction rather than any sort of serious commentary. And then we’re on to the montage of happy jobless people. Up In the Air is still a good movie; it's just not a great one. 3 out of 4 stars.