Up in the Air
In a year when the Oscar race has no 600-pound gorilla in the room, Up in the
Air has been touted as a Best Picture candidate. I'm not sure how I feel about
that. On the one hand, the film is supremely slick and it does have some depth
underneath its brightly polished veneer. The film is a reflection of its lead
actor, Hollywood's designated silver Fox George Clooney: gleaming, glib, smooth,
in control, with just enough vulnerability to imply that it's more than a pretty
face. If there was an Oscar division for the products with the best packaging,
Clooney would win every year, and Up in the Air would be a champion.
But he doesn't and it isn't.
In fact, for 93 minutes it is a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy lifted
somewhat above average by its fine cast and its willingness to take on a heavy
theme (the pain of losing one's job). Then at minute 94 it takes a dramatic and
daring turn and defies all of our expectations. In fact, I was close to giving
the film a standing ovation at minute 94, but before I could leave my seat, I
realized that the screenwriter didn't know what to do with his brilliant and
bold plot twist. The last ten minutes of the film just wander off into nowhere,
sort of pretending that several of the film's key developments had never
happened at all, dazed like a prizefighter after a hard head shot.
So here's what Up in the Air would be like if it were a person. It's the jock
who decides that he's not going to spend his life chasing after a little ball,
but instead he's going to go back to the dream that made him happy. He's going
to try to write the great American novel and spend time with his family. We are
moved by his story. We stand up and applaud him for walking away from all that
money and fame to do the right thing for his wife and kids, and for himself. But
then he disappoints us. He tries, and he just can't do it. He's a bad writer and
a sub-par husband and father. The only thing he's good at is playing ball, and
when he was doing that he at least had some focus in life. Now that he has quit,
he's not good at anything. He walks around dazed, like a prizefighter after a
hard head shot.
In other words, it's not good enough to come up with one brilliant plot twist
which subverts the genre conventions. You also have to know what would happen to
your characters in case that twist happened to them. Or if you don't know, at
least come up with a hypothesis. Don't just end the movie with everyone walking
around like a dazed boxer.
After having boldly declared that Up in the Air should not be a Best Picture
winner, let me mitigate that position just a bit. First of all, George Clooney
is magnificent at being completely charming while playing an essentially odious
character. Since Cary Grant retired there is probably no other actor in the
business who could make us like and feel empathy for the man who is delivering
the lines Clooney has to deliver in this film. And since I'm saying Clooney is
the only actor in the world who could have pulled this off, I guess I'm also
saying that he is a legitimate Oscar candidate. And although Up in the Air
should not really be playing in the Best Picture League, it is still a
worthwhile film. It's not very deep or very smart, but it's deep and smart
enough to realize that its first 93 minutes could easily have led to a bullshit
ending, so it did not go there. That alone makes it worth the time invested in
If only it could have replaced the bullshit Hollywood ending with some other
ending, as opposed to no ending at all.
I seem to be quite isolated in my position, by the way. The film is rated a
spectacular 8.3 at IMDb, and received 89% positive reviews. It seems to be an
almost certain Best Picture nominee, especially given this year's expanded
Vera Farmiga's nude scene
was performed by a body double. According to Vera, director Jason Reitman
shot the film both ways, with her and with the double, and decided to go with
the double for reasons unknown to her.