Friday, October 2, 2009

Toronto FilmFest Reviews: Up in the Air

I started the filmfest with the work of one "Juno" alum, and I finish it with another. (And both have J. K. Simmons in them!) Jason Reitman's had both his previous films premiere at TIFF, and both times people were buzzing madly about them during the fest, so it's not surprising that "Up In the Air" received a hero's welcome this year, with people already anointing it this year's Oscar frontrunner. Unfortunately, even if the hype had been more modest I'm not sure the movie would have lived up to it. While this is a much better movie than the standard Oscar bait, it's actually probably my least favourite of Reitman's movies so far. Since my favourite is the wickedly satirical "Thank You For Smoking", his first movie, it's hard to avoid the feeling that Reitman is devolving as a filmmaker, or at least being swallowed by the Hollywood pap factory.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a successful corporate hatchetman who flies around the country firing employees for management types too craven to do it themselves. He's one of these guys who's adapted himself perfectly to the kind of job very few people can do successfully--he has to deal with angry, devastated, hopeless, sometimes even suicidal people, and make them leave, if not happily, than at least complacently. Ryan's not the kind of jerk who takes pleasure in this stuff, either--he sees it as a crucial part of his job to understand the people he's terminating, and set them on the path to getting their life back together. In fact, he honestly seems to believe he's giving people a neccessary push towards finding a better career, and he may even be right in some cases. Essentially, Ryan seems to enjoy engaging very passionately with people for a short period of time, and then cutting them loose. If you think this might be a metaphor for how Ryan approaches his relationships, well, give yourself a cigar.

Another way in which Ryan is uniquely suited for the job: he loves travelling, which he's got down to a science. Most business travelers yearn for the days they can spend at home; Ryan begrudges every moment he's not on the road. In fact, he's angling to become only the 8th person ever to accrue one million frequent flyer miles, which would grant him membership into an elite club with a ton of traveller's perks. He's got no one waiting for him at home--even his sisters (one of whom, Julie (Melanie Lynskey) is due to get married in a few weeks) are virtual strangers to him. When he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow traveller with similar proclivities, he seems to have hit the jackpot: Alex jets around the country as much as he does, and she's happy to have a series of romantic flings with him every time their paths cross, then leave him alone the rest of the time.

Unfortunately, Ryan's lifestyle suddenly finds itself threatened by Natalie (Anna Kendrick, who's great), a fresh-out-of-Princeton middle-manager hired by his boss (Jason Bateman) to streamline their business. Her solution involves using teleconference screens to fire people over the net, an idea which Ryan hates, and with pretty good reason. A compromise is reached: Natalie will tag along with Ryan for a few weeks and learn the ins and outs, which she hopes will refine her process, and he hopes will show her and their boss what a lousy idea this is. Naturally, a mentor-student relationship develops, and both parties Learn Something About Themselves.

This movie is trying to be a cross between Jerry Maguire and In Good Company (that's the Dennis Quaid/Topher Grace movie from a few years back about a rivalry between an older and younger executive that morphs into friendship). I liked both those movies--yeah, I like Jerry Maguire, sue me--because they had a sense of humanity first and foremost. You couldn't call them "unpredictable", per se, but it felt like the plot was evolving naturally out of the characters' decisions rather than following a screenwriter's formula, and its emotional beats felt earned. "Up In the Air", on the other hand, features some fine acting--that's probably the best thing about it--and the characters are relatively well-fleshed out, but the plot feels like a bigger concern here, and it's entirely predictable once you get to the second act. In fact, the climax features the kind of "romantic" moment that Clooney, with the Coen brothers, already skewered in "Intolerable Cruelty". There's a late, minor twist, but I saw that one coming too. Frankly, the whole movie feels like it's trying too hard to be heartwarming.

This is a light and genial movie, suitable for a holiday movie rental with your parents or something, but there's no way it deserves a Best Picture win. And Reitman really needs to steer his ship towards edgier waters--I would hate for "Smoking" to turn out to be a fluke.

No comments:

Post a Comment