Thursday, January 7, 2010

Up in the Air: Rarefied air

Up in the Air (2009) • View trailer for Up in the Air
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sensuality and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.7.10
Buy Blu-Ray: Up in the Air [Blu-ray]

When Columbia Pictures released The China Syndrome on March 16, 1979, just 12 days before Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island turned fiction into uncomfortable fact, more than a few editorials discussed this unsettling convergence of art and real-world events.

Pure coincidence, of course, given the several years required to get any film from concept to screen. But there's no denying the degree to which The China Syndrome subsequently tapped into the late 1970s Zeitgeist and general paranoia concerning nuclear power plants. Indeed, the film quite probably had far too much influence  to this day  on subsequent political decisions made regarding the nuclear power industry.
After watching Natalie (Anna Kendrick) struggle to maneuver her old-fashioned
suitcase -- which isn't even that large -- Ryan (George Clooney) buys her a
more efficient bag, like his, and brutally instructs her in the "proper" way of
packing. No surprise: She resents this...

Similarly, 1999's American Beauty truly caught the mood of that decade, with screenwriter Alan Ball exploiting his gift for slightly exaggerated truth to denounce our corrupt, overly materialistic and unwholesomely narcissistic society, as viewed with growing clarity by one man doing his best to escape it. Director Sam Mendes' film became the mirror in which we viewed ourselves, as the millennium approached, and the reflection wasn't terribly inspiring.

Art sometimes speaks to us, as a nation, on a level that far exceeds its creators' wildest expectations. It's lightning in a bottle: You can't plan or design it. Coincidence frequently plays a role, as if God  or your supreme being of choice  occasionally likes to look down and go boogah-boogah-boogah.

Jason Reitman's Up in the Air  collaboratively scripted with Sheldon Turner, and adapted from Walter Kirn's novel  is such a stunningly accurate commentary on Where We Are Right Now, that it's positively spooky.

It's not merely a function of putting faces to the down-sizing epidemic that has booted so many people from their jobs, although that's part of the well-seasoned recipe that makes this film so thought-provoking. Far more relevant is this script's savage indictment of the illusion of "contact" that we have via cell phones, e-mail, texting, tweeting and whatever else arrives in the next five minutes: technological substitutes for actual human interaction.

"People don't look each other in the eye much anymore," Reitman comments, in his film's press notes, "and we have fewer relationships."

This is not a good thing.

The phenomenon is all around us, the trend increasingly disturbing. How many friends and family members skipped traditional holiday greeting cards this year, for the "easier"  read: less personal  option of group e-mail?

You won't get any warm fuzzies by hanging the paper print-out of an e-mail over the fireplace.

And here's the limit, at least at our home: We received a card from friends  who grudgingly get points for that much  that had no message inside, beyond a Web address where we could find their "holiday greeting" to all. (Yeah, we'll get right on that.)

But I digress...

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a creature of this universe: a corporate downsizer-for-hire who has turned social disconnection into such an artform that he's frequently paid to give lectures on the subject. "Imagine this backpack," he begins, pointing to his single prop, "with all your stuff inside it."

Fair enough; we're all weighed down by far too many material possessions, and the pursuit of acquiring more.

But then, a few sentences later, Ryan asks his audience to imagine that same backpack filled with the people in every listener's life. And suggests that this, too, can be viewed as disposable clutter.

And  creepy image  many of Ryan's listeners smile. And nod.

Ryan travels so much that he seldom visits his own apartment, which has the disquieting sterility of a dwelling where somebody died, years ago. He boasts of being on the road  in the air  some 300-odd days a year, while chasing the ultimate American Airlines frequent flier card, issued to those rare individuals who've flown 10 million miles with the carrier.

Ryan and several dozen colleagues work for a company that sends its emissaries across the country, to briefly occupy business offices and fire employees working for managers too craven to pull the trigger themselves. It's the ultimate manifestation of weasel behavior, and  via his ongoing voice-over commentary  Ryan has no love for such cowards.

But he believes strongly in his function as an instrument of forward motion. The language in Ryan's meticulously composed speeches is psychologically precise: His "clients" aren't being "fired," they're being given an "opportunity" to "transition into something better." He's smooth and affable, as Clooney always is; the part seems designed for the actor.

As was the case with Michael Clayton, Clooney's at his best when cast as a brutally pragmatic, superficially suave bottom-liner who long ago dispensed with any need for heart or soul.

Except that it always catches up with him...

Ryan's carefully ordered life is threatened when his boss, Craig (Jason Bateman, properly superficial), drags him back to the home office to absorb a presentation by recently hired "efficiency expert" Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), an upstart twentysomething fresh out of school and convinced that she can change the world. Natalie's revolutionary plan: to conduct these termination interviews via screens and Web links, thus saving all the money spent to send Ryan and his several dozen colleagues across the country.

Consider the irony, then, when Ryan — who has built his life on disconnecting from the social fabric  finds himself arguing against Natalie's concept, and in favor of the personal touch. And means it.

This assault on Ryan's well-structured universe is augmented by two additional intrusions: an invitation to his younger sister's wedding, which reveals the frankly shocking degree to which he has pushed away even close family members; and a chance encounter with Alex (Vera Farmiga, with slyly hidden depths), a simpatico fellow traveler who's every bit as superficial as Ryan, and a bouncy, full-blooded bedroom companion to boot.

Worse yet, Ryan finds it necessary to educate young Natalie  if she's going to "revolutionize" his job, then she damn well needs to experience precisely what his job involves  and therefore reluctantly accepts her as a companion on his next series of assignments. The mutual antipathy is corrosive and deftly played by both Clooney and Kendrick.

This is the old, familiar battle: age and well-worn experience versus youth and naive enthusiasm. And because we're talking George Clooney here, Kendrick's Natalie doesn't have a chance.

Which is not to diminish Kendrick's performance; indeed, she's spot-on in every scene. She'll be well remembered by those who saw Rocket Science, where she played a supposedly compassionate member of a high school debate squad who proved to be breathtakingly duplicitous.

We hate Natalie's smugness on sight, and her condescending irritation is equally persuasive, as Ryan shares his knowledge of everything from economical packing to racially profiling the best people to stand behind in an airport security line. ("I'm like my mother: I stereotype. It's faster.")

Funny thing, though: As Ryan forces Natalie to confront the actual people she'd so casually discard via Web link, her humanity surges to the surface. She's not the trained, carefully distanced shark Ryan has made himself, and Kendrick nails her character's expanding vulnerability. Her best scene, by far, comes when she finally tries to put her own concept into real-world practice.

Trust me: The theater will go pin-drop quiet.

This is a good moment to praise Reitman's many termination montages, where occasional professional actors  such as the ubiquitous J.K. Simmons  are interspersed with far more ordinary civilians, themselves recently fired or laid off, who responded to cattle-call ads asking them to re-live, down to their very words at the time, these worst moments of their working careers. The verisimilitude is heartbreaking, and Reitman and editor Dana E. Glauberman cut these scenes superbly.

This film's up-to-the-minute social relevance notwithstanding, Up in the Air  richly meaningful title, by the way  focuses mostly on Ryan Bingham's personal journey. We human beings are pack animals, and it's foolish to believe otherwise ... which makes our growing, technology-fueled disconnection more than unsettling. As this story calmly reveals, it's downright dangerous to the social fabric that has held our nation together for two centuries and change.

Quite a wake-up call.

And I'd like to think it'll have the same lasting impact as The China Syndrome.

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