Posted by: Jeff | March 9, 2010

A Shout-Out for “Up In the Air”

One of the bummers of any award show is that you can only give the award to one recipient. And as happy as I am to have seen The Hurt Locker emerge the conquering hero, the more I think it about it the more it seems Up In the Air’s shut-out was rather extreme. So I’m glad to see Ross Douthat defending the film against some of its harsher critics.

There’s no way to avoid discussing the ending here, so I’m posting the rest of this below the fold. Anyway, here’s Douthat:

It’s true that for much of its running time, “Up in the Air” feels like a feel-good star vehicle — jaunty, smooth and seemingly predictable. The roguishness of Clooney’s Bingham, a professional layoff man jetting from one corporate bloodletting to the next, is charming rather than appalling, even (or especially) when he’s easing working Joes into early retirement with lectures about the bright post-job future that awaits them. That’s because, just as Lim suggests, his redemption seems foreordained by the architecture of the movie: It’s only a matter of time before the love of his soul mate (in the person of Vera Farmiga) and the experience of seeing his own soullessness reflected back to him (in the person of Kendrick’s upstart) awakens the better angels of his nature.

Such an ending would be pat and offensively solipsistic, using the suffering of average Americans as window dressing for a star’s cheery pilgrimage to wisdom and romantic bliss. But that isn’t what happens. Clooney’s soul mate is revealed as even more of a messed-up user than he is: Their hotel-room relationship, it turns out, is her way of livening up a staid domestic routine with the safe-but-boring man she settled for. (She read too much Lori Gottlieb, I guess.) The offstage suicide that Lim discusses, meanwhile, throws an a wasting shadow back across the humor of the earlier layoff scenes, undercutting any inclination the audience felt to buy into the “today is the first day of the rest of your life” twaddle that Clooney-as-Bingham sells to layoff victims. Yes, Clooney’s character gets an epiphany: He opens his heart, gives away his frequent flier miles, and stops giving stupid lectures about “emptying your backpack” of all human concerns. But does he actually get redemption, or does the gift of knowledge come too late?  Here the movie is ambiguous, I think, and the final scenes shade toward pessimism. Certainly the overall effect is closer to tragedy than comedy — and the indictment of Clooney’s character, and the milieu in which he coasts, grows sharper, rather than blunter, as the film moves to its conclusion.

Actually, the ending didn’t strike me as ambiguous at all. The gift of knowledge does come to late to Bingham, and the final result is, for all the film’s old-school star-driven Hollywood showmanship, an all-encompassing tragedy. The last glimpse we get of Bingham is of him broken, alone and empty, returning to his jet-setting lifestyle in a manner that seems to come pretty close to soul-death. Nor are there any mitigating circumstances offered or any open-ended intimations of some possible future absolution.

And not to sound obtuse, but there is a certain way in which Bingham’s descent mirrors that of the people he has dispatched from their employment. Certainly not in the sense that his suffering or material loss is equal to theirs, but in the sense that both have been stripped of their sense of meaning and left asking the question “What now?” In a reflection of his own description of his job, Bingham has been ferried halfway across the River Styx and then tossed overboard and told to swim.

This is significant because of the movie’s final scene – a montage of many of the characters Bingham has encountered describing how they were able to hold on to a sense of meaning and endure the loss of their job. (As has been noted plenty of times by now, many of these characters were played by actual workers who had been laid off. And while one can never be sure about these things, it seems at least defensible to assume that what we’re dealing with here is genuine expression as much as Hollywood artifice.) And all of them come to the same conclusion: he resource they fell back on was the love of their wives, children and families. It’s how they came up with an answer to “What now?” And the film makes it abundantly clear that this is precisely the resource its protagonist has denied himself.

Many of the movie’s critics, wary of Reitman’s politics after the quasi-pro-life “Juno” and the quasi-libertarian “Thank You For Smoking,” seem to suspect that movie is functionally right-wing — or at least that it lets American capitalism off the hook too easily. Lim, for instance, accuses “Up in the Air” of “shape-shift[ing] from a fondly critical view of the cruel business world to a family-values tract.” But he’s missing the point: The family-values material, the message that relationships matter more than personal independence and material success, ultimately makes the movie’s critique of the business world that much more stinging, and gradually purges all the fondness from Reitman’s portrayal of corporate America. It’s fair to call the film “conservative,” I suppose, in the sense that it suggests that ordinary decency and human connections can help people survive economic vicissitudes. But its essential theme is populist, in ways that the progressive left and Tea Party right should both be able to appreciate. “Up in the Air” focuses on a “lonely corporate executioner” rather than his victims because it’s an indictment of corporate executioners, and the entire business elite along with them — those deracinated, bottom-line obsessed high-flyers who treated our economy like a giant casino and left the country holding the bag. And the fact that the emblematic high-flyer is played by the glib and charming George Clooney doesn’t change the fact that the movie is more interested in exposing his follies than in rewarding him for finally coming to his senses.

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