Don’t Like (Comparitively): Up In The Air

UP IN THE AIR is fairly pleasant and technically well-made. The stars and interactions are amiable. I liked what it was trying to do and what it was trying to say. It is even timely in a tad on the nose, but still completely respectable way. I fully recognize that it has some worth in the landscape of poopy movies out there. So why don’t I like the movie? The problem is that central conceit of UP IN THE AIR doesn’t really make sense whatsover, which means the entire movie is basically an irreconcilable trick.

There is one central question which highlights this problem: why does George Clooney like isolating himself from people and spending most of his time on an airplane? Seriously, why? The only substantial answer the film seems to give is because he does, that’s why! By all accounts the character is amiable, genuine, and well-intentioned. He likes to get away from his family, but in all scenes with them he is warm, kind, and means well. He can’t help falling into perfect comfort and ease with his female counterpart. Within a day they act like they’re in a full blown relationship despite the fact that they’re both no. So when he gives his speeches about wanting to accumulate 10 million miles, burning your backpack of a life, and how comforting the lonesome travel routine is to him… well… it seems completely out of left field for his likable personality type. That person is not like that. That person is even real. Hell, I know that person. That person is slightly Aspergian. That person is unadjusted. That person doesn’t get why their job is evil, or why it’s actually so important that actually connect with other human beings. And as such that person does not behave like George Clooney. Conversely George Clooney is one of the only people who can make that character likable and thus enjoyable for the audience to watch, but does not doing that completely undermine the entire conceit of the movie? His character is really doing nothing but going through the motions of dissasoiation. No matter how hard he tries to sell it, we never buy it for a second. Not from George Clooney. UP IN THE AIR is really nothing more than an irreconciable premise, well executed.

So it comes down to a question of logic, and if you engage that question, the movie can’t help but fail. (Note: this isn’t a plot hole kind of thing. Plot holes you can ignore much, much easier to forgive than a hole in character. Then again some people don’t agree with that, but I really believe we will follow and forgive a character for doing anything plot-wise if they are true to “themselves.” If a character bends their will merely for the sake of plotting, or another character’s development and not their own individual reveal, it just never truly works.)

Similarly there is a development in the film that highlights this exact same failure in logic, and this is a MEGA SPOILER so be wary… okay here’s the spoilier… When Vera Farmiga’s character is revealed to be married it is both the most obvious thing (because they way they shoot the build up to the scene) and similarly the most left-field nonsensical thing for her character. Aside from one singular part of the film, she never for a second behaves as if she’s married. Or someone who is the married type. Why would she behave in such “relationship-y” way with George Clooney’s character? Despite a few in-your-face lines, it is obviously not just a sexual fling for her. Why would she go to his wedding, and to his high school, and go down all those roads if he’s just her “escape” from her marriage? Why would she be so helplessly at ease with him when he’s getting wisty with and attached to her? It makes absolutely no fucking sense. It’s merely a story telling trick to set you up for her eventual reveal (ie “betrayal”). And if that’s part of her game or modus operandi than she is simply an evil, callous, and use-a-term-again Aspergian human being… which the film does not seem to be indicating whatsoever. So there.

The end result is this: UP IN THE AIR is a slick, detached hollywood production that is trying to say something worthwhile and timely about wounded and detached human beings, but can only do so by hoodwinking you with dishonest charm.*

* it should be noted Anna Kendrick’s character, despite being the most cartoony of the bunch, actually made sense and was therefore the best part about the movie. Like I said, I will forgive anything if the charcter’s actions and behaviors are emotionally valid for the character.


5 Responses to Don’t Like (Comparitively): Up In The Air

  1. Matt says:

    I would argue that your complaint about the movie is that it doesn’t stereotype the characters into exactly what you expect them to be.

    In my opinion, George Clooney’s character is so charismatic and pleasant BECAUSE he’s always on the road. The journey that he’s on makes the rest of the relationships bearable. He begrudgingly loves his family and does the right thing, even finding out he enjoys it – but in the back of his mind, he’s still the guy who wants to be on the road. When he tries to deviate from that, he gets hurt (see “betrayal.”)

    Vera Farmiga’s character gets her escape by getting a boyfriend that shares her lifestyle. Having experienced one side of an affair, it doesn’t shock me at all that she would go to the wedding or to his old school. It’s just that at the end of the day, she’ll never leave her permanent home (even if she does almost all the time for work.)

    By being the most cartoony of the bunch – by being exactly what you’d expect – Anna Kendrick’s character does stay true to the role. However, there’s just not enough there in the role itself to let that be acceptable… and that’s why she was my least favorite character.

  2. mgss says:

    I cant totally see where you’re coming from, but disagree with a couple of your points. 1) One problem is that the word choice of your opening comment implies I don’t like when characters divert from stereotype or that my viewing experience depends on expectation. This is not the case at all. In fact I’m usually delighted by a wonderfully executed and sincere reveal (which is why I tend to overvalue Whedon’s decent work). What I’m saying is that the tone of those diversions/reveals is the single most critical aspect, not that they simply happen. And the tone of these character traits were emotionally/tonally dishonest to the rest of the film. It’s a perfect example of trying to have it both ways (there’s a great film that highlights why the UP IN THE AIR tone or other romantic comedies are nothing more than delicate ruses, it’s Mike Leigh’s HAPPY GO LUCKY).
    2) Anywho. I would agree there is a potential logic for any of the characters actions, but I didn’t buy it. Which in the end is a matter of opinion and all, but that’s my opinion and it’s based on a steady diet of seeing/analyzing/writing more movies than is possibly imaginable. I feel like I have a good BS detector. And the way that UP IN THE AIR tried to have a commentary on certain behaviors struck me as directly disingenuous to the kind of film it was actually making, particularly in the overtly likable performance by Clooney.
    3) that’s all.

  3. mgss says:

    Ooooh just had a good thought to highlight what I’m talking about. If your theory on Clooney’s character receding into his travel routine (and thus prevent himself from being emotionally hurt) was true, then wouldn’t he have willfully retreated into that routine after the what happens with Vera Farmiga? Wouldn’t he delight in that? That would certainly be the indication for his pathology. But instead, at the end of the film he’s never so desperately wanted to get away from that world and find a true emotional anchor. The film’s desire to have us sympathize with him, they betray the probably reality of the character.

  4. ModernMan says:

    Perhaps it was a bit too subtle for a half-witted blogger, but the characters in UITA were probably intended as satirical examples of people that we all know. The movie could have easily delved into the characters’ past (a love gone wrong when he was younger would have aptly explained Clooney’s character’s fear of connection) but that isn’t the point.

    Maybe you should stick to your day job (busing tables?) and leave the movie reviews to those who have the mental capacity to do so.

    – MM

  5. mgss says:

    Ah yes, the “too subtle” argument. Film school and my entire career must be for naught. All because I thought a film was too liberally using it’s fluctuations of character to a dishonest effect. And by the way, if you don’t quit it with the insults and obvious attempts to get under my skin then you will not be allowed to comment anymore. It’s completely unjustified and unproductive. Please make any counterpoints to posts you’d like as they are most welcome and stop with intentional barbs. You’re making a mockery of the “not deleting comments” policy. Thank you.

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