Tuesday, 8 June 2010

I'm Like My Mother. I Stereotype. It's Faster.

Ah, finally we're getting closer to today.

Up In The Air was the only major contender from last year's Oscar race the I didn't see (well, major in a sense. I have no desire to watch The Blind Side, for example. Besides, Up In The Air was nominated for a hell of a lot more Oscars than the Bullock helmer.) I spotted it a couple of weeks back and thought, what the hell. It looked like a nice easy-watching film to ease myself back into things post parental departure. So I grabbed it, and I was right.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney - no relation to the Oscar winning composer behind The Weary Kind - funny they both turned up at the same Oscars ceremony, hey?) is employed by a company that contracts out its services to companies too afraid or kind hearted or whatever to fire their own employees. Basically, Ryan flies around the United States firing people for a living. He sits across the table from them, tells them that they're fired, and then doesn't take any of their anguish home with him because he doesn't know them - their pain doesn't affect him on an emotional level because he has no connection with them outside of that office. Thinking about it, it actually starts to make sense in a twisted way. I don't want to be told that I have lost my job by anyone, but it doesn't really make a difference if that initial news comes from my actual employer or someone they have contracted in. The initial shock and upset is the same, so one may as well spare the employer from having to deal with it. I can always question my boss later and find out why, once the shock and anger has calmed a little, and it becomes true curiosity driving my questioning, rather than a quest to prove my boss wrong.

But I digress. Ryan. Fires people for a living. He is constantly in the air, has no close family, no friends. He has so many frequent flier miles it hurts. On one of these trips he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), someone in the same position as him - always on the road (or, ba-doom, up in the air), and the two begin a complex, schedule-defying affair. Just sex, right? Around the same time, Ryan's boss (Jason Bateman) takes on a new employee, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who proposes to revolutionise the company by keeping the employees grounded - they can fire people using telephone and video hookups - wham. The boss tasks Ryan with showing Natalie the ropes on the road while they set up the new system, against Ryan's very strong wishes. He is happy on his own, with his solitary time in airport lounges and in hotel rooms. He mentions that he is in the air, what was it, 320+ nights a year, which means he has to spend a lousy and miserable 40-odd nights a year in his apartment. He gives lectures on how to construct your life so that it will quite literally fit in a suitcase, so you could life it on your back - get rid of those loved ones! Who needs possessions?

While on the road Natalie is dumped by text message by her long-term boyfriend, whom she had uprooted her life and moved to Nebraska for, passing up numerous great job offers. She is devastated, but shortly Ryan and Natalie are called back to the office as the remote firing system is about to be put into effect. Ryan doesn't go straight back, instead heading to Wisconsin to go to his sister's wedding (played by Melanie Lynskey - Melanie Lynskey fest!) where he begins to realise that his life isn't all it's cracked up to be - his family is happy to see him, but only in the sense that they figure they should be. He's like a distant relative you only see at weddings and funerals, but you don't really know. The sister even has someone else, a family friend, organised to walk her down the aisle, since her father has passed away.

Back in the office, one of the employees fired remotely has killed themselves, turning Natalie into a wreck who resigns and goes home and putting a stop to the wireless business plan. Instead, Ryan is back on the road - but does he really want to be? Has he maybe realised that the life he is living isn't really a life at all?

There are hints of great George Clooney in the film, but only hints. The depth shown in that final scene of Michael Clayton, for example, wasn't really on offer here. He is, however, eminently watchable in anything he does. He has great charisma, so really all he needs to do is show up and it's fine. Sure, it's nice when he puts his back into it, but he doesn't really have to. Kendrick and Farmiga both shine in their respective roles, Alex as the emotionally cool older woman who knows the deal and Natalie as the fresh-faced girl with hope bursting out of every pore. And the excesses discussed are timely (flukily timely) considering the whole bad money business going on over the last couple of years - within the context of the financial crisis and subsequent near global recession it managed to function not as a reminder of better days, but a reminder of what unmitigated greed can inspire us to do.

Writer-director Jason Reitman is good at making easy-going, watchable films. Much like George Clooney. Juno was a terrific little film, and Thank You For Smoking was a good debut. This, however, just felt a little too cold, a little too distant. I enjoyed watching it, but I felt absolutely nothing for Ryan, and very little for Natalie. Surprisingly I felt for Ryan's sister and also for Alex, but when the two dominant characters are so distant from the audience emotionally, it makes it hard to buy into it. You can watch it, you can laugh at it, you can even shed tears in it (not that I think this is a cryable film, I'm just saying you could if you wanted to), but that doesn't mean you actually care. The situations can be quite sad. But you're still not crying for the people.

Ultimately I didn't feel Ryan's character arc. I saw it, I understood it was there, but I didn't feel it. Which has a little to do with Clooney and a little to do with Reitman, I think. The film didn't warm, to speak in a spurious fashion. Those cold lines and tones didn't soften. It held you at arms length to start with, and then kept you there. And so, whilst I don't regret watching it, I know I'll never see it again. Like Julie & Julia, that doesn't make it a bad film, but here especially I was hoping for something more. 2.5 stars.

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