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: Movie Review - Up In The Air
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Feb 18th 2010
This review discusses the protagonist's dramatic arc, from beginning to end, in detail. Some may consider this a spoiler.
A melancholic portrayal of a country in recession, but a manipulative depiction of a lifestyle. UP IN THE AIR doesn't seem to approve of its protagonist's nomad existence, and at times I almost felt like the movie was trying to convince the audience that not marrying and not having any children will turn you into George Clooney's character. Sure, there are times he displays an argument that strongly defends his isolated life, but in the end, it's a film about a man regretting the path he chose.
In this case, this isn't a good thing. No-one lives life fully; you're lucky to have but a fraction of all there is to experience. Marrying, having kids and settling down isn't for everyone, and UP IN THE AIR decides that, instead of showing the pros and cons of the life protagonist Ryan Bingham chose for himself, it's going to concentrate on the cons.
Which isn't really honest; Bingham's life is quite fascinating. Uninterested in forming bonds with people, his home is the airport. As a man who fires employees for a living because the employees' actual bosses don't have the balls to do so themselves, Bingham is a bringer of bad news and a witness to a lot of shock and suffering. He has to convince these people, seconds after telling them they've been fired, that this is an opportunity, not a loss.
And he loves that life; he loves that all his worldly possessions fit into a single bag; the confort of a plane and the energy of an airport; the belief that his job is a vital one: instead of your boss awkwardly telling you you're no longer needed, it's a trained professional that will do his best so you will leave the room feeling not as monumentally awful as you should be feeling. After all, you'd have been fired anyway; that it's a man like Ryan Bingham firing you is a small sweetening of what might be the worst day of your life.
Enter Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young woman full of ideas who proposes an idea to Bingham's boss (Jason Bateman): do it via videoconference. Let the employee get the bad news through the cold distance of a computer screen. This would allow people like Bingham to discard the need to travel so much and settle down if they wish. Obviously, Bingham hates the idea, and the scene where he explains why to Keener and his boss is one of the best in the film: he might have personal reasons to dislike the idea, but he's got pretty fucking good arguments too.
So his boss has another idea: make Bingham and Keener teacher and student, so she'll learn from his experience and with this knowledge support any other ideas she might have in the future. Obviously, Bingham also hates that, but he's got no choice. And so, throughout the movie, he trains his new student while having a casual relationship with a woman called Alex (Vera Farmiga), who travels just as much as him and who describes herself as Bingham "with a vagina". And as the movie progresses, he starts to realize the life he's lost because of the other life he chose.
As we eventually do. How not to? So much to experience, and proportionally so little time. The problem with UP IN THE AIR is how, in the third act, it seems to condemn Ryan Bingham for his life. For its first two acts, it's a brilliant film. A sensitive comedy that strikes the right balance, making you laugh but never letting that get in the way of its dramatic potential; the picture it paints of a country in crisis is touching and real. All those headlines we've read about a corporation firing "10,000 employees in March" gains a much stronger meaning, and I particularly highlight the quick but exceptional performance by J. K. Simmons (always brilliant) in a dramatic cameo that is one of this film's memorable scenes.
But while that aspect of the film is superb, the dramatic arc that Bingham goes through falls apart in the third act, with director Jason Reitman giving in to painfully obvious licensed music that pretty much describes with its lyrics what the protagonist is feeling; worse, Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner put Bingham into increasingly implausible situations -- who in their right fucking mind, or even completely insane, would ask a man like Bingham to convince another person about the wonders of marriage? It becomes clear, in this scene, that the character who asks Bingham to do this doesn't need him to; the script does. Not to mention the moment where Bingham experiences an extremely important moment of his life and, due to the things he's been through during the film, he's almost indifferent to it -- which is overdone to say the least. You'd at least expect him to be happy while it happened, reflecting on the importance (or lack thereof) of the event itself afterwards.
(continued in comments)
Feb 18th 2010
This paragraph contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the film, please skip to the next one:
the plot twist regarding the true nature of Vera Farmiga's character, Alex, is equally artificial. The movie does hint to it in a scene where Alex tells Keener about what she wants in a man, but not only it doesn't feel consistent at first, it's even more problematic when in a phonecall after it happens, Alex is absurdly (and preposterously) cold to Bingham, describing him as a escape, a "parenthesis".
Reitman, however, does show some impressive new tricks as director. From the energetic opening to the melancholic ending credits, UP IN THE AIR is a competently shot film. With a bluish cinematography that alludes to the cold, office world Bingham lives and feels most comfortable in, the film also has some inspired camera movements, such as the shot that starts with a character singing karaoke and pulls back to show two characters having a conversation. And the shot that puts Bingham and his family all in the same frame is perfect, since it enhances even more the severe awkwardness of the moment. After all, Bingham is not a family man.
The film also benefits from a good cast: George Clooney is of course affected by the irregular dramatic arc his character goes through, but delivers a charismatic and touching performance, being utterly convincing when depicting Bingham at work; Anna Kendrick strikes a good balance between the smart woman her character wants to be and the overly emotional one she actually is (and her convulsive weeping in a certain scene is very funny). Vera Farmiga is also sabotaged by the third act, but is quite competent for most of the film. Finally, Jason Bateman abandons his typically friendly persona for a much colder, profit-chasing character. With the exception of actors like J. K. Simmons, most of the people seen being fired in the film are actually non-actors who have indeed been recently fired, and their reprisal of how they felt in the film is convincing and natural; a good casting idea.
While UP IN THE AIR most definitely works as a sad depiction of the current state of affairs, as the portrayal of an isolated man it's quite flawed. For the first and second act, the film was keeping a nice balance, and on the third it takes a side; instead of Bingham acknowledging the life he didn't have, he seems to utterly regret the one he did have -- the same life that, when the movie starts, he had been quite happy with up to that point, well into his middle-age. He seems to regret never settling down, and the chain of events that leads him to this state of mind is manipulative and artificial.
Instead of witnessing a middle-age crisis, I felt like I was being lectured on how being Bingham is Wrong. Of course, I could read the film another way, or find other explanations -- after all, regretting your entire life is hardly unheard of in human nature -- but it is how I felt, due to the problems in the third act. A little more subtlety and UP IN THE AIR could have been a well-rounded, polished dramedy.
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