23 December 2009

Filmbook: Up In The Air (2009)

Ryan Bingham: Road warrior. Corporate high achiever. Professional destroyer of worlds. Walter Kirn's 2001 novel went inside the mind of a frequent flyer chasing the elusive one-million-mile mark, and while a lot has changed in the airline industry since it was published -- 9/11, to begin with -- you've probably crossed paths with a traveler like Ryan, George Clooney's character in the movie, for whom an on-the-road hookup is de rigeur and being saddled with a trainee for the common corporate good is a drag.

I liked Jason Reitman's adaptation, but I didn't love it. I feel tempted to go a little harsher on it than I really intend because of the raves it has been drawing, but before I do, I will point out that I'm glad I saw it and my expectations were probably too high. If you're at all invested in the end-of-the-year critical blowout or the race for Best Picture, you were going to see this anyway, but it won't be a chore.

That said: Reitman and co-screenwriter Sheldon Turner made significant changes to the book, most of which I didn't mind, but my major problem with this movie was its tone, the aspect in which it least resembles Kirn's work. This movie suffers from a sort of directorial anxiety, constantly prompting its viewers for their reactions until settling on a desired response too late to have me trust it. I was left feeling that Reitman had made a vessel into which viewers put their own feelings instead of a statement, something Kirn's novel decisively rejects. (Giving examples of this would verge into spoiler territory, but I'm happy to duke it out in the comments if anyone has seen it and wants to fight.) If this movie wins Best Picture, and it already seems like a lock to be nominated, I think it will hold a mirror up to the voters rather than truly giving them something to latch onto.

Despite having that reaction, I did latch onto the characters in this movie, particularly Vera Farmiga as Alex (great in a somewhat limited role) and Anna Kendrick as Natalie Keener. Danny McBride's key scene moved me quite a lot, although again I'd have to venture into spoilers to tell you why. As for Clooney, if you like him generally you will like him here, but I didn't see anything unexpected or notable about his performance. I think he's a solid actor who picks great projects (and promotes them with his presence) but his range is somewhat limited, and coupled with the predictability of the script he couldn't pull off the reaction that Reitman finally settles upon for his audience at the end. Reitman's last movie "Juno" managed a similar transition well, but here the switch feels very jarring.

Filmbook verdict: It feels wrong to do this, but I've been recommending people who are disappointed by the movie to read the book after, so I'll make that my official advice (do as I say, not as I did).

See also: The most thoughtful thing I've read about "Up In The Air" is this spoilerrific essay by J.R. Jones of the Chicago Reader; it's a shameless plug, but some friends and I collaborated on a piece about our personal best movies of the year; and because it's awesome, watch a young Anna Kendrick as an understudy who poisons her rival to do some Sondheim in 2003's "Camp."

Still from Screen Daily.

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