Saturday, 13 February 2010

Up In The Air; what was I doing at a quality movie?

Nothing explodes at Up in the Air, but I wasn't expecting anything to, so that was OK. The last time I was talking about George Clooney confronting the emptiness of a character's life, it was Michael Clayton, and his car exploded. In Up in the Air, George is much too squared away to have an exploding car. Thinking about it now, perhaps an exploding car might have helped him figure out where he was going wrong.

Up in the Air is a very good film that doesn't do what you expect it to. Traditionally, if you start the movie with a guy who's plainly got a system, what's supposed to happen is that by the end of the movie he's realised the system is a bad one and that he should lose himself in the lurve of a good woman. Up in the Air does not respect tradition. It also fails to give George Clooney all the best scenes; nearly all the best scenes in the movie work because one or other of his female co-stars is doing the heavy lifting, while George does two-shots.

My favourite scene is in the middle of the second act, when the two co-stars meet. Alex (Vera Farmiga) and Natalie (Anna Kendrick) have a great dialogue in which the 23 year old Natalie explains her vision of settling down with a man and Alex tries not to wince with every unreflective comment that makes her sound like a middle aged failure making do with a guy she met in an airport hotel bar. It's absolutely wonderful because Anna Kendrick does the cluelessness so well. Natalie has just been dumped by text and isn't at her sharpest, and Alex is a very realistic woman who knows not to be too bothered about the uninformed opinions of a girl with half her experience of life. Any other movie I've seen would have turned it into a sparring march which Natalie would have lost; this movie lets it run the way it would in real life, with Natalie tactless and Alex determined not to let it get to her and ultimately reflective while trying ever so hard not to be condescending. It's a great scene - in real life no-one's that articulate, but real people do let conversations run wrong rather than have fights.

Clooney's character starts as a cipher, obsessed by two things - the uncluttered simplicity of a life spent on the road without attachments of any kind, and some sort of complicated internal scoring system which revolves around high status loyalty cards. His job is firing people who their own bosses don't have the balls to fire, and in today's America, business is booming. He's developed a practised schtick which blurs the edges of getting downsized and eases the now jobless person into the job-placement process which his company sells to the downsizers as part of the package of getting rid of the people they no longer want to employ. It's persuasive, and ultimately hollow, much like George's character.

Conventionally, George ought to be introduced in the first act, tested in the second and have an epiphany in the third. What actually happens is that Acts One and Two go according to plan, and then the epiphany fails to take; George realises his life is empty (for added irony, he realises this just as he makes the big pitch for his philosophy of emptying out your life completely) and runs off to seize the opportunity he has belatedly realised is there for him to fill it with something worthwhile. At the end of that run, he discovers he was completely wrong; there isn't anything there for him. And so the film ends where it began, with George back in the rut of a life spent on aeroplanes and living out of a suitcase.

It ought to be more depressing than it is, but somehow it's actually quite a fun film. Part of it is that it never gets shrill, part of it is that the characters are likable without being unrealistic. The time spent with them is pleasant, and although George Clooney's character is - once you think it through - a complete disaster as a human being, he's not in any way a cruel man, he's trying his best to be gentle and decent in his work, and he seems no unhappier at the end of the film than he did at the beginning. The stakes aren't terribly high, and the damages done aren't tremendously unsettling; somehow, although Natalie is the unwitting cause of a suicide, Alex is cheating on her husband and Ryan (George's character) is a borderline sociopath, they all seem like nice folks who get through the movie without getting too badly hurt or hurting anyone else much.

I think that the takeaway for the movie was supposed to be something about how you should place your faith in other people and have friends; that loyalty to a loyalty programme (Ryan is obsessed with getting air miles from American Airlines, to the extent that every purchase, no matter how trivial is evaluated on whether it will get him more miles) is valueless. The movie actually has a lot to say about loyalty between people and corporations - we're shown how little point there is to Ryan's loyalty (at all his worst moments, there's a sign in the background for American Airlines frequent flier programme, with the slogan "We value your loyalty") - and the people he fires go on about how much they've given a company that doesn't even value them enough in return to look them in the eye when it disposes of them.

That wasn't quite what I took away from the film. We're shown dozens of people reacting to being fired, and for pretty much all of them it seems to be completely devastating - and somehow very personal, like a death, or the discovery that they're being dumped by a spouse. And as I watched this slow accumulation of vignettes, it came to me that in the - highly unlikely - event that I ever did get fired by my fiendish employers, I might well be angry, but I don't think I'd feel such a sense of betrayal. It's been a very long time since I believed for one second that my employers saw me as anything other than an expendable cog. My expectations of them are incredibly low. Nothing they do could surprise me - appall me, perhaps, but never surprise me. It didn't quite ring true to me that middle aged employees of corporations in the US could still have the expectation of anything from their employer other than a pay cheque at regular intervals - working in a much less unpleasant corporate environment it's more than a decade since I expected anything more in my job. Then again, the film would have had even less drama than it's got if all the firees had just taken it numbly and walked off.

Anyhow; well worth a look. As I say, the heavy lifting is done by Farmiga and Kendrick, with Clooney underplaying everything, but it's utterly engrossing all the way through.

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