I. The Moral Quandary
About halfway through Up in the Air, an anonymous African-Amercian woman whom George Clooney and Anna Kendricks have just fired tells them that there is a “beautiful bridge” close to her home, and that she now plans to go there and jump off of it.
In response to this, Anna Kendricks’ character, Natalie, has a moment. She staggers from the meeting room, shaken by this confrontation with authentic suffering. George Clooney as Ryan follows her out and assures her that this is just how the newly-fired talk; they never follow through, and don’t let it get to you.
The anonymous African-American woman is never to be seen again.
Now, about two-thirds of the way through the film, just as George Clooney’s Ryan is reaching the apex of his moral development, his boss, Jason Bateman comes to him with the news that someone named “Karen Barnes,” whom George/Ryan apparently fired on his last road trip, has committed suicide, and the company is facing some unanticipated consequences. Does this name mean anything to Ryan, the boss asks. Does he remember her, remember firing her, remember any comments she made that might have suggested what was to come?
Ryan shakes his head no, and on persistent questioning by the boss reiterates that this name means nothing to him.
The problem for me here is that, the way George Clooney performs this exchange with Jason Bateman, it is impossible for a viewer to tell what he is “really” thinking. Clooney maintains a perfectly blank visage through the entire scene, with no inflection tucked in—no clenched jaw, no glance downward, nothing for the audience to grab on to—that would let us know whether, in fact, he does know who Bateman is talking about, does remember the woman and her threat. And so, we cannot understand his motivation, or the meaning of this scene in the fabric of the story: is he stupid? Is he so morally awash that he truly wipes clean his memory slate after every firing, and “I’m going to jump off the bridge” registers with him no more than “you suck?” Is he nobly saving Jason Bateman and the company by pretending not to remember, and if so—why? Why, at this point in the film, when his character is supposed to be starting to get it, to feel the pangs of his fellow human beings, and have some longings of his own? Our narrative resumes, with the dead Karen Barnes no more than a blip on the radar screen of Ryan or the film.
That is the first problem with this film: It is glib. It is false. It is probably amoral.
Amoral? Yes. Do you remember the fuss made by those who love this film, about the interviews conducted by director Jason Reitman with actual people who had recently been fired? Those interviews are cut into the film as samples of real suffering, real pain, whenever George/Ryan and Anna/Natalie conduct their firing sessions.
But the interviews are not our story, they are not even, really, tangential to the story. They are like an alternative universe within the film—the story(s) that might have been told, but aren’t. Yes, George Clooney’s character is in the business of firing people. And yes, Jason Reitman was serendipitously lucky to be shooting his film when American economies were collapsing, so that these nameless former employees were available for interviewing and pasting onto the wallpaper of his film, thus bringing the aura of topicality to Reitman’s enterprise. But the story, the heart of this film, is about one man’s rootless lifestyle—and the fact that he fires people for a living has nothing to do with the story of his accumulation of frequent flyer miles, his romance with a fellow frequent flyer, his mentoring of Natalie, or even his niece’s wedding that almost doesn’t happen. He could just as easily be flying around the country selling moving boxes as firing people, and frankly the film would be more honest if that were the case, because then no one would have to care about Karen Barnes—but I do. (And, unless I missed someone, or unless there are some black TSA employees in the repeating scenes of airport security checks, the African-Americans among the interviewees are the only black people in the entire film.)
II. Un-pretty People
The second problem with all those real-life fired people, after the fact that they don’t really matter here any more than they do in their former corporations, is that they are not pretty. They are real people, and that is how we can distinguish them within the movie from the actors and actresses who inhabit Reitman’s story world. Now admittedly, this is tricky. A couple of times the newly-unemployed become actual bit characters in the film, and when that happens they are portrayed by real actors—but funny looking, character actors like Zach Galifianakis as “Steve,” and television’s J.K. Simmons as “Bob,” fire-ees who have complete scenes. (I was unable to find anyone credited with playing “Karen Barnes” on imdb—another sign of her erasure.) In this way the unattractive professional actor blends with the real person who re-enacts his or her actual firing for Reitman’s camera, dragging the film further into murky moral territory. Simmons and Galifianakis use their specific imperfect looks perfectly, as the skilled performers they are, whereas the stream of non-professionals simply offer up their uneven teeth, their blotched complexions, their un-made faces—and their authentic reactions to being let go.
They are not the only Un-pretty People in the film. Interestingly, George Clooney as Ryan seems to come from a whole family of the Un-pretty, thus raising questions about his paternity (we never see his character’s parents; I can’t remember whether they are supposed to be deceased, or are simply unaccounted for). But Ryan’s family is well-represented by his sister Kara, her daughter Julie, and Julie’s fiancé, Jim. These people all live in the dairy state of Wisconsin, and the niece’s impending wedding to Jim is one of the film’s plot strands—confronting another couple’s commitment is an opportunity for our hero, Ryan, to contemplate his own rootlessness and detachment, blah blah blah. It seems that Ryan has been largely absent from his sister’s and niece’s lives, so his arrival at the rehearsal dinner festivities is a big deal for the family and for the narrative. Kara is a plain woman with a heavily-lined face. Julie and Jim both sport unruly dark hair, are overweight, and share a certain lack of symmetry in their faces (Julie has a decidedly lopsided mouth) that is intended, I think, to make them adorable in our eyes while simultaneously poking fun at Wisconsiners.
III. George Clooney
At the center of it all stands George Clooney. George Clooney: now 49 years old, an Academy Award winner, a staple of American pop culture since the early 1990s, a man associated with liberal politics and good causes, handsomeness, womanizing, all-around good times and being cool. As has been observed of him many times, he is the next generation’s version of what Warren Beatty was to an earlier public. The problem that Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, confronts in the film is, as I’ve said earlier, one of alienation from his fellow humans. He flies all the time, and he loves it—he loves the anonymity, the constant movement, the perpetual excuse not to be tied down. It is supposed to be a real problem—a grave problem, a problem of loneliness that we, the viewers, can universally feel. But as personified by George Clooney, it doesn’t look all that bad. It looks carefree, it looks exciting, the movement and the anonymity are alluring to those of us who live those tied down lives that Ryan avoids. It is, ultimately, a glamorous looking and seductive lifestyle because it is embodied by a glamorous man. So what’s the real message? What is the moral center of this film?
Clooney’s presence brings a layer of irony to the film that the filmmakers do not seem to comprehend, or to harness. It simply escapes them, lending instead the air of amorality. Remember that when Ryan travels to Wisconsin for his niece’s wedding, there is a clash of the Pretty (Clooney) and the Un-pretty (Kara, Julie, Jim—basically anyone who’s in the Wisconsin portion of the film). It’s those Un-pretty people who are making good choices in life—getting married, working hard—Ryan sees that, he longs for it in some nebulous way, and we, too, are intended to identify with these people and to applaud their choices. But then, at the last possible moment—the morning of the wedding—Jim gets cold feet. And who is called in to bring him back around? Ryan. What are we to make of the scene where the pudgy Jim confesses his doubts to Ryan (in a litany of what happens to you once you are married; it is, admittedly, hilarious) and Ryan talks him back into going through with it? Who is the winner in this scene—the Un-pretty Jim, or the perpetually handsome Ryan, who will enjoy the wedding and then walk away from this snowbound Wisconsin life?
IV. Vera Farmiga
Some time before the fired woman threatens to jump off her bridge, the true plot complication has appeared in the film, in the form of Vera Farmiga as Alex, Ryan’s fellow frequent flyer. She is Ryan’s romantic interest and the story element that causes him to begin questioning his mobile lifestyle. Their relationship is based not only on great sex (she has managed to do it in an airplane bathroom, something which Ryan has not been able to accomplish, and it is this revelation that first heats up their relationship), but also on a mutual understanding of each other’s lifestyles and that slowly dawning realization that what they have between them upends what has come before. But Alex only exists from Ryan’s point of view, leaving plenty of room for the surprise twist about Alex: when Ryan decides he’s ready to commit he shows up unannounced at Alex’s home, where it is revealed through background noise that she has a husband and more than one child. Ryan is shocked—he blanches, he stumbles backward down her stoop. He has the moment that Anna Kendrick had earlier, when the fired woman threatened suicide.
Vera Farmiga is, naturally, another pretty person and an adept performer. In the film, all of her signifiers are about sexy intelligence: her straight, bob-cut hair, her conservative-sexy business outfits along with her spike heels, her shiny lipgloss and the many secret close-ups of her where we see, unbeknownst to Ryan, that she is falling hard for him, thinking about what this could do to her life. But once it is revealed that she is leading the biggest double-life of all, how are we to feel about her? And how does she even pull off such a complicated, full time ruse? The improbability of her double-lifestyle does not seem to matter for the narrative, or the ultimate meaning of this film. Again, she and her secret are merely tantalizing plot devices. For one thing, she is superwoman, and she must be the greatest super-compartmentalizer of all time. She seems to be out on the road almost as much as Ryan, yet there is never a complication from back home. How many children does she have? We don’t really know. How does she do it all, and stay in such great shape at the same time? What form of birth control does she use, since a woman, unlike famous two-family fathers such as Charles Kuralt and Charles Lindbergh, will be immediately betrayed by her changing body if she gets pregnant? After the revelation of her other life, Alex has just one more phone call with Ryan, in which she says that she thought he understood the rules, and if he wants to follow them then he should feel free to call her again. He probably won’t, we’re left to think. But at the end of film, after his metaphorical journey is over, Ryan is back where he started—about to board a plane, still caught up in the air. And for those of us who are largely earth-bound, it looks pretty damned glamorous, a life of meaningless sex and endless perks. I do not believe that this was the point that the filmmakers intended—but whatever was the point, it has been lost in a confused haze of professional acting by attractive people and real, unacted anguish by the anonymous interviewees.
V. The End of “Filmmaking”
Those of us who work in the film school industry swim in the gulf between established channels of film production and the ever-expanding, internet-and-cheap-equipment-driven world of new independent and “DIY” filmmaking. Jason Reitman is a second generation director, the son of Ivan Reitman, who is standing on the established side of the gulf as the coastline is eroding. From that side of the shore, I can understand why this project looked appealing, and why casting George Clooney seemed an intelligent choice. An intelligent actor for an intelligent project, adapted from a novel by an intelligent writer, Walter Kirn. Indeed, the early, warm critical reception given the film underscored all this intelligence, along with the much-discussed topicality of the interviews.
But it is these very elements that will, I think, turn Up in the Air into a dinosaur very shortly, and which illustrate why conventional filmmaking and distribution is on the wane. In five years, everything that made Up in the Air so 2009 will make it seem…..so 2009. The topicality and the intelligence are a trap, because what looks smart today can look stupid (dated, hokey, irrelevant, unfashionable, boring) tomorrow. It’s a good old-fashioned story, with a central, male main character and an attractive romantic complication. But the irony and the edges of the story are pulling hopelessly away from the center, and the center will not hold. The fragmentation of production and especially distribution opens up the possibility of expanding points-of-view. The points of view that are shut down in this film—Karen Barnes’, Alex’s family, Jim and Julie’s, those of all the other anonymous fire-ees—could be easily opened up in another format. Why tell this story, with this star? Much as George Clooney harkens back to an earlier version of Warren Beatty, so the film invokes the ghost of many “intelligent” films of the 1970s featuring an alienated hero (most likely, Beatty). But that was before the explosion of irony in popular culture and the explosion of economic suffering, moral angst and uncertainty that currently engulf us. I do not care very much about Ryan Bingham and his “problems,” and in all honesty I suspect that not many viewers cared about him, other than film reviewers who also fly a lot. But I do care deeply about “Karen Barnes” and all the unnamed interviewees in this film, and I wish that they had been given cameras, for that is where the real story lay.