January 11, 2010

Until the Underpants Bomber tried to blow up Flight 253 over Detroit, the frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar was widely assumed to be Up in the Air. Indeed, before the Christmas Day incident reminded everybody of how much they hate business travel, the dramedy”€”in which George Clooney plays a travel-addicted corporate consultant who gleefully flies first-class around the country to fire people”€”let Hollywood feel, for once, relevant: The Motion Picture Industry Responds to the Unemployment Crisis!

Why would Academy Awards exist if not for self-congratulation?

Up in the Air has been widely celebrated for being the first movie to refer, tangentially, to the economic downturn in the mere 29 months since subprimes crashed in August 2007. The film doesn”€™t actually have much of interest to say about losing your job (other than it helps to have family), but at least the movie mentions it.

Modern Hollywood requires so many lunch meetings before a deal can be put together that it can only attain economic topicality by procrastinating through an entire business cycle. This adaptation of Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel (which is set in the booming 1990s) wound up being worked over, on and off, by writer-director Jason Reitman (2006’s Thank You for Smoking) throughout the last decade. (Hollywood’s inability to be as up-to-date as the opening skit on Saturday Night Live is, on the whole, a good thing. Not surprisingly, the first excellent Iraq movie, 2009’s The Hurt Locker, is an apolitical, timeless portrayal of men at war.)

“€A 48-year-old heterosexual man with Clooney’s charisma would be Executive Vice President of Sales, dealing only with high-level customers, not with the poor bastards they want fired.”€

Kirn’s Up in the Air, which I read after seeing (and almost forgetting) the movie, is much better than I had expected. It’s a gentle satire about the alienation modern travel inflicts. Ryan Bingham is a kind, reflective, wounded man who has stumbled into a career so mortifyingly unmanly he won”€™t mention it to his seatmates: “€œcareer transition counseling.”€ In other words, he flies around the country to give pep talks to the newly laid-off. He intends to quit as soon as he reaches one million frequent flier miles, and then find a life where he can have a home and perhaps a family.

The most distinctive aspect of Kirn’s book is Bingham’s wry but sincere appreciation for the small solaces”€”such as rapid check-ins for regular customers and executive clubs at airports”€”that capitalism has devised to make life in “€œAirworld”€ slightly less soul-crushing. (Consider that Robert Crandall of American Airlines devised frequent fliers miles as a blatant kickback to bribe corporate travelers into getting their employers to pay for higher fares on AA. That miles instantly became sanctioned by custom as the private property of employees is testimony that even your boss recognizes the afflictions of flying.)

Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman, director of Ghostbusters) has turned Kirn’s wispy book into a lengthy, pseudo-satire denouncing the nonexistent trend toward Expense Account Homelessness.

Up in the Air is by no means a bad movie. Yet, if it’s a Best Picture contender, more attention should be given to Reitman’s contrivances, which tend toward the absurd, sentimental, and on-the-nose. For example, rather than counsel workers after they”€™ve been let go, Bingham’s job is now to fire people he’s never met before. That’s not at all what real outplacement firms do”€”although this gimmick of Reitman’s can be excused because it adds interest to a movie rather lacking in incident.

Moreover, Clooney is miscast as a Career Transition Counselor, which is a pink collar “€œpeople person”€ job. A 48-year-old heterosexual man with Clooney’s charisma would be Executive Vice President of Sales, dealing only with high-level customers, not with the poor bastards they want fired.

Clooney is less an actor than an old-fashioned movie star. That’s wonderful in a movie star role. Yet, nobody would have cast a 48-year-old Clark Gable in such a sad little job, and Clooney gives us no reason to find him credible, either. A better actor who is less of a celebrity, such as Peter Sarsgaard, could have made me believe in Ryan Bingham, but Clooney can”€™t.

Worse, in contrast to Kirn’s Bingham, the Reitman-Clooney version is not just adept at living out of his suitcase, he loves it. He tells everybody they should do it. He’s like John Candy’s pathetic homeless salesman in 1987’s Trains, Planes, and Automobiles, only he thinks he’s cool. In the wake of the idiotic new humiliations dreamed up by the government to abuse passengers further after the Underpants Bomber, Clooney’s zest for hanging around airports seems especially nonsensical.

Is there anybody alive over the age of 25 who likes to fly from Omaha to Detroit as much as Clooney’s roguish antihero does? I”€™m sure there must be, somewhere, but in 18 years in the corporate world, I never heard anybody admit it. The norm is to kvetch about travel.

And is it really so much better up in first class? Does your flight get delayed less when you use your miles to upgrade?

No, the corporate bigshots I”€™ve known all lusted after private jets. Now, that’s luxury. (Of course, in its own way, it’s equally nerve-wracking to have a pilot and copilot sitting around drinking coffee while you figure out where they should fly you next so you can earn enough money to keep paying their salaries.)

Most preposterously, Reitman gives Clooney a side business delivering a “€œmotivational”€ speech at conventions advising paying customers to abandon their loved ones to live a carry-on life devoted solely to … accumulating frequent flier miles:

“€Make no mistake, your relationships are the heaviest components in your life … The slower we move, the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime: star-crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We’re sharks.”€

No doubt, some corporate travelers think like this, but they don”€™t talk like this. They always make a big to-do over the personal sacrifices they”€™re making by being out on the road.
Reitman’s plot devices then laboriously teach Clooney’s Bingham the Important Life Lesson that it’s better to have a home and a family than to spend your life in food courts.

Thanks, Jason, I didn”€™t know that.

Of course, what male fans of Up in the Air want is not Ryan Bingham’s life, but George Clooney’s: a private jet to your villa in Lake Como or Puerto Vallarta with this month’s Vegas cocktail waitress. (Female fans, in turn, get to fantasize that Clooney is thinking about settling down.) Since they know they won”€™t get Clooney’s life, Up in the Air lets them take comfort in assuming George will, for his sins, die alone.



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