Sunday, January 3, 2010

Up in the Air's disconnectedness

The wonder is why this film has been become such a darling of critics. It has won numerous awards and is nominated for six Golden Globes. It has an 89 per cent positive rating among reviews gathered by the Rotten Tomatoes web site. Just wait for the Oscar nominations, right? Up in the Air by Montreal-born Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno) is based on the 2001 Walter Kirn novel. This is a competently made film and the acting is satisfying. And Clooney, in his subtly charming way, has put in another well-rounded performance. But it has drawn rave reviews from critics, who seem to have focussed on a couple of things. One is the chemistry between he and co-star Vera Farmiga (as Alex Goran), previously well-hidden from audiences with her most notable role being in The Departed. They play two frequent fliers par excellence, road warriors of the corporate world who spend most of their days in airports, airplanes or rooms at the innumerable faceless airport hotels from Tulsa to Tallahassee. The attraction between them is interesting but surely no diffrerent from countless other onscreen romances. The only difference is that both travel so much they spend weeks apart before their calendars allow them to rendezvous in the same city again. What's the other appeal? Well, Clooney is a major star, recognized both for his acting and as a sex symbol. Then there's Reitman. He, after all, made the hugely-successful Juno (2007). Coming off that film there probably is a lot of goodwill towards the director. Critics have also hailed the movie as symbolic of our time. Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who works for a human resources company contracted by employers to fire staff. With the millions of people laid off over the past couple of years as a result of the worst recession since the Great Depression this wider aspect of the movie resonates. In fact the film has put on screen many of the ordinary people who were victims of corporate downsizing. In Detroit it advertised on Craigslist to find them. And certainly the film captures the almost surreal world of those still working - ironically Bingham and his young acolyte appropriately-named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, Twilight) whose jobs it is to fire workers - as the world of shiny first class airline travel and upscale hotel bars continues unabated against the backdrop of a collapsing economy. But I have a problem with this as well. Typical of Hollywood the movie comes across as an anti-corporate morality play. "Just look at how those terrible companies treat their employees, firing them at will, how awfully inhumane," it seems to say. And when each soon-to-be-axed worker comes before Clooney and Keener to be given the bad news of their termination that worker understandably reacts with disbelief and anger. They demand to know how they will continue to support their families. Others denounce the company for tossing them on the street after their years of loyality. We hear of one woman who commits suicide. But not once in this film is there a wider perspective of the economic crisis. Why are companies firing people? Perhaps it's because it's the only way to salvage what's left of a once-profitable firm so that the firm can survive, return to prosperity, and hire again. Typically these workers whine as if the companies owe them something. What do the companies owe? The companies have given them a job in the first place. There were no guarantees. It's unfortunate they lost their jobs but it's time to move on. But then this is liberal Hollywood with its anti-corporatist worldview, ironic given the billions of dollars Hollywood makes and its very well-heeled acting community an example of which is none other than a Mr. George Clooney. One way to interpret the film is that Bingham as the impersonal destroyer of careers is symbolic of the emptiness of his own life. He has few friends and likes to keep people at emotional arm's length. He decries marriage and the need for family. Until, apparently, he falls for Alex. This is a kind of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit for our era. Bingham's life is a microcosm of the heartlessness of corporate America, a Freudian-Marxist analysis if ever there was one. So there you have it. This is a well-acted, well-directed movie but of no greater consequence. The romantic chemistry is no more profound (in fact, quite less so) than in hundreds of other films. And the bigger message seems to be that capitalism, well, sucks. Other than some great airport scenes (especially of Detroit Metro's McNamara Terminal!) what's new in that?

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