Coming Down in a Puff of Smoke: Up in the Air (2009)

Posted by Charles Reece, December 13, 2009 11:51pm | Post a Comment
"Hey, little girl, don't you know he's the devil / He's everything that I ain't / Hiding intentions of evil, / Under the smile of a saint. / All he's good for is getting in trouble, / And shiftin' his share of the blame. / And some people swear he's my double: / And some even say we're the same./ But the silver-tongued devil's got nothing to lose, / I'll only live 'til I die. / We take our own chances and pay our own dues, / The silver tongued devil and I." -- Kris Kristofferson


Unlike my blogging confrère, I somewhat ashamedly enjoyed Juno, but primarily for the comically pathetic character played by Jason Bateman. He's an artistic dreamer compromised by the bourgeois constraints of making an upper-middle class living. He's also the only basically decent adult male protagonist in director Jason Reitman's three-film oeuvre (perhaps due to being written by Diablo Cody, rather than the director). That is, Bateman's character still has some idea -- no matter how illusory -- of making music for something other than its exchange value. If his new film, Up in the Air, and first film, Thank You for Smoking, both of which he wrote, are any indication, Reitman's more interested in the bourgeois male who serves as the beguiling, devilish proponent of Capital. In the earlier film, Aaron Eckhart (who's always been the artier house parallel to George Clooney) plays the chief propagandist for Big Tobacco with absolute zeal, completely committed to the libertarian ideal of capitalism as being best when it's amoral -- let the consumer qua homo economicus make up his own mind. That such corporations pay big bucks to the rhetorical charms of such men puts the big lie to this idealization. Eckhart's character never goes beyond being a fascinating evil in the film, which keeps the audience at a distance from him, making it clear one should put identification on hold. It's for that reason that the attempted dramatic turns fall flat, even though the movie ain't half bad. This time around, Reitman places the capitalist devil in a romantic comedy, using the most seductive of contemporary stars, Clooney.


While Clooney gets compared to Cary Grant a lot (and for good reason), one thing he's never had is a role as good as the ones HitchcockHawks and their writers used to supply -- at least, until now. Ryan Bingham is Clooney's Roger O. Thornhill, a complete narcissistic asshole with whom, nonetheless, you can't help but identify due to his charisma and tragic disposition. Whereas Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman provide some phony absolution for the adman Thornhill at the end of North by Northwest, Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner remain true to the letter(s) of their character (which might as well be 'R.O.T.,' with the 'O' standing "for nothing"). Ryan is a hatchetman for corporate downsizing, who uses his silver tongue to do what corporate bosses are too cowardly to do directly. In the manner exhaustively detailed in Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided, he uses the depraved double-speak of the positive thinking movement to make employees (supposedly) feel good about being canned -- as if it's a chance for a new beginning, rather than being cast off alone into the void. He's also a part-time self-help guru for management, who's devised a nihilist philosophy that justifies his own inability to connect with humanity except through a miserable way of making a living:

By justifying his life's work as that of the lonely Charon's, ferrying the formerly employed across the river to another plane of existence, Ryan provides succor to management types who might feel bad about firing so many during a recession. The comedy begins when he faces his own potential downsizing by a recently hired Ivy-League graduate, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who's developed a series of flowcharts, scripts and internet software which makes his job capable of being done more efficiently by remote (over a computer screen). Since Natalie's internet approach doesn't possess the simulated warmth of Ryan's person-to-person equivocal skills, the company pairs them out in the field to improve upon her algorithms. In a rare instance in a Hollywood film, a character-too-smart-for-his/her-own-good is actually smart. Natalie's means-end philosophy of life makes for the perfect counterpoint to Ryan's more jaded solipsism. Both have difficulty interacting with others as ends in themselves. 

The romance is provided by Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, who's like Cate Blanchett with the sex appeal of Veronica Lake). She's pretty much a female version of the Ryan character with some nondescript corporate job that keeps her in the air nearly as much his does him. Their layover-based affair begins through a comparison of frequent-flyer miles and prestigious credit cards. Instead of turning homicidal as it did in American Psycho, this one-upmanship is the "beginning of a beautiful relationship," where Ryan has finally found his mental and existential equal. It's also the first time Clooney has ever encountered an actress playing someone who isn't there for him to simply dominate with his charisma. (If this were the classic Studio-era in Hollywood, Farmiga and Clooney would go on to star together in another 5 or so films.) The problematic difference between the two characters is that she keeps her business and private life separate, whereas he isn't much more than than the protective mask he's created for his job. While the dialog is every bit as clever as that of the classic Depression-era romantic comedies, the film proves to be more modern in its approach to how easily one can cast off such masks. 

A true classic of the Ought decade

Relevant Tags

Barbara Ehrenreich (1), Jason Reitman (2), George Clooney (3), Cary Grant (4), Up In The Air (3), Romantic Comedy (3), Vera Farmiga (1), Cinema Criticism (32)