Not So Up in the Air

I was very excited to see Up in the Air. I like George Clooney. As a reader of View From the Wing and a (quite inactive) member of FlyerTalk, I’m intrigued by the whole frequent-flier culture: I’m almost on my second free flight through Southwest Rapid Rewards, although I’m a little irked that they terminated their very lucrative double credit College Rapid Rewards Program. And, I thought writer/director Jason Reitman’s two previous films, Juno and Thank You For Smoking, were both excellent. Plus, 91 percent of the top critics at Rotten Tomatoes approve of Up in the Air and it’s been nominated for six Golden Globes, including Best Picture.

In his review, Roger Ebert explains: “This isn’t a comedy. If it were, it would be hard to laugh in these last days of 2009. Nor is it a tragedy. It’s an observant look at how a man does a job.” Ebert’s mostly right: Everything gets called a comedy, but this certainly isn’t one: Even Zach Galifianakis’s scene isn’t really that funny. However, I think it’s a little more than a look at how Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a “career transition” counselor (in other words, a professional firer) and frequent-flier, does his job. There’s significant focus on the character development of Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent-flier and lady-of-the-sky for Ryan, and Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a brainy and super-organized Cornell grad who moves to Omaha (where Ryan’s company is centered) with her boyfriend and brings new ideas with her to the company.

The best part of the movie, for me, was Natalie Keener. She was a remarkably complex, unique, and totally realistic character. She settles for Omaha—despite her desire to work in San Francisco—because her boyfriend got a job there. When she and her boyfriend breakup, we see the intelligent and assertive Natalie struggle in a way that is still consistent with her character. She cries but she tries to regain composure. Kendrick does a fantastic acting job when Ryan challenges Natalie to “fire” him, to display that she could handle her proposal of firing employees through webcam. She perfectly transitions from utter confidence to a sort of uncomfortable state that is half-covered up by her façade of assertiveness.

But, the development of Alex Goran is one of the most disappointing, if not the most disappointing, parts of Up in the Air. Alex and Ryan first meet in the American Airlines lounge and have a cute scene where they exchange all of their credit cards. Then, throughout the film they spend several nights together in different locations. In perhaps her best scene, she and Natalie contrast the expectations that a 34-year old and a 23-year old woman have for a potential husband. Alex’s assertion that what seems like settling at 23 is no longer settling at 34 was fairly interesting. Alex then agrees to go with Ryan as a date to his sister’s wedding. At the end of the film, when Ryan decides to screw his leave-all-your-commitments-behind philosophy and flies to Alex’s house, it turns out she has a husband and kids. There is absolutely nothing hinting at this throughout the film. In fact, in the scene I just discussed, Alex emphasizes what she’s looking for in a man: She needs someone who earns more than her and likes kids, particularly at her age and then she proceeds to rub her stomach. Given her reaction to Clooney coming to her house, she clearly didn’t intend to be deceptive either. This scene clearly is supposed to be of significant importance, but its import is overwhelmed by its inconsistency with everything we know about Alex.

Now, thematically, Mahnola Dargis of the NY Times claims, “There are different ways into ‘Up in the Air,’ which can be viewed as a well-timed snapshot of an economically flailing America, appreciated as a study in terminal narcissism or dismissed as a sentimental testament to traditional coupling.” I think this is one reason why critics really loved this movie. It encapsulates the Zeitgeist of 2009 and the Aughts more generally by focusing on people experiencing economic trouble and incorporating the latest technologies into nearly every scene. But, it tries to hard to be a movie of the times. It seems to try even harder than You’ve Got Mail, which was, admittedly, a pretty decent movie. There is sexting, blackberry use, frequent frequent-flier card swiping, webcam interaction, and simultaneous laptop typing. It has scenes that a certain portion of the 60+ generation obsessed with all-of-those-things-we-can-do-with-those-computers will love, but, for those familiar with this culture, it just seems kind of trite and annoying.

Moreover, the other themes aren’t incredibly compelling either. Yes, people get fired and we’re in a recession, but the focus is really on how the career counselor does the firing, not on how the fired employees feel. Given that the career counselors don’t even know why the employees are being fired, it’s difficult to explore the emotions and significance of the firings with any depth. Given the lack of background of any of the employees being fired, I felt little sympathy for them when they actually were fired. This isn’t necessarily a flaw in the film, but critics shouldn’t be hyping this as a “snapshot of an economically flailing America.” Unlike Thank You For Smoking, whose take on tobacco companies’ promotional strategies was novel, interesting, and humorous, Up in the Air’s critique of corporate America and the alienation it creates, embedded in the failed webcam firing idea was none of these.

Let me emphasize: Up in the Air isn’t a bad movie. There were some humorous comical flourishes (e.g. Natalie’s defense to her loud typing: “I type with purpose!”), some scenes that made you think, and some excellent acting. But, when combined with the worn themes, the trying-too-hard, and the inconsistencies, I can’t say this was a great movie either. It certainly doesn’t deserve any “Best Picture” nominations.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Vanessa on December 27, 2009 at 12:25 PM

    Funny – I had the same general feeling about the movie but for an opposite reason!

    I actually found Natalie Keener to be the unrealistic stereotype – of youth (all those kindly meant barbs about Alex’s age? No one with half a brain – which she supposedly has, being a business savvy Cornell grad – would be that tactless. Even in your early 20s).

    Alex, on the other hand, made more sense to me as the movie progressed. By the time you discover that she’s married with kids, you understand why she so aggressively pursued Ryan – because he’s not a “real” person (with things like responsibilities and mortgages) and because she didn’t have to be “real” with him either. When Alex describes what she’s looking for in a man, one of her few moments of honest reflection, she says so with the confidence of someone who knows – because of her own experiences.

    Otherwise, I agree that the move tries a bit too hard to be a part of the times and allows the fired employees (some of whom were played by actual unemployed people, not actors) to hold a precariously uncertain position in the movie (are they meant to be more important than the characters themselves? does their very real suffering detract from the world created by the storyline? maybe even add some unnecessary moralizations?).

    I guess my feelings about the movie are still up in the air.


  2. […] films like Avatar and Up in the Air—which are by no means in the highest class of films this year—would have been nominated anyway. […]


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