Up In the Air: not quite tough enough
George Clooney’s Up In the Air (2009) is in a long and noble tradition (maybe two), and it very nearly delivers.
Remember all those 1950s movies in which slick modern capitalism and slick cosmopolitan lives are both sexy and soul-destroying? They usually starred (inter alia) Tony Randall, Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe, Rock Hudson. They involved multiple twists of allegiance since the audience was supposed to thrill to the sophistication, and deplore it as a disgrace. The wickedness on show was posited as thoroughly American and also un-American. It was partly a matter of the city versus the country, but also the virtues of the market versus the virtue of the prairie.
Up In the Aircovers this territory, but with a severe risk that it is a bit of tract. First, the Clooney character, Ryan Bingham, is a corporate downsizer (a shark, so a creature of the market) and at times his hapless victims are given all too much chance to come off as though this were a Michael Moore movie. Secondly, Clooney’s footloose lifestyle is all too obviously soul-destroying. Until that is, he is disastrously opened-up by his burgeoning attachment to a fellow road-warrior. (Alex, manfully played by Vera Farmiga, who was compelling in The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas, 2008.) In short, in the early passages of the film, one worries that the event is not going to be hard-hearted enough to be consistently funny. It never quite is. Indeed, at first it took all Clooney’s charm to make one take any interest in Ryan.
One feared that this would not be a worthy successor to Thank You For Smoking or Charlie Wilson’s War. But the piece did get some beef, if it was served patchily and with a little reserve. The twist comes when we find Natalie, a tinny-voiced young business girlie, sweeping into Clooney’s downsizing outfit and take it into the internet age. This character was a delight to a middle-aged audience. She was just as we oldies like to think the young to be: thin-skinned, PC, brutal, gullible. The idea that downsizing would be better done by remote control allows Ryan to seem almost noble in his insistence that redundant employees have a sort of right to be bounced face-to-face in acts of honest cruelty.
Actually, I think the younger woman gets dealt a bad hand by the film: it caricatures her. Indeed, one might also argue that Alex gets let off rather lightly. Is there any more universally admired figure nowadays than the older woman trying to have it all?
If we switch genres, we see that this is a cowboy film. Clooney is the roving loner, reaching retirement or redundancy as technology (the web standing in for barbed wire) threatens his honest tough way of life. In important but odd passages, we se Ryan as a public speaker whose pitch is a sort of Nabakovian existential post-materialism. He lives in hotels and out of a rolling suitcase because it has a minimalist appeal to do so. His holy grail is to be a top-earner of airmiles, but he has no consception of the leisure journeys he might make with them. This is the restlessness of the cattle drover. He is seduced into dallying and becoming sedentary by a good tough broad or a prairie Madonna (Alex doing duty for the town whore in the bustier and his sister standing in for the virtuous teacher in gingham), but circumstances condemn him to get back in the saddle.
I say this film isn’t tough enough. But there were one or two wonderful sustained passages (especially when Clooney and his two women are in play). There were plenty of sharp laughs and one stand-out joke when Clooney says stereotyping (a little like profiling) was good enough for his mother (ancient wisdom) and is good enough for him. “It’s quicker”, he says, non-judgementally. That’s true of course and he reminds us that stereotyping does not necessarily condemn (or celebrate) every member of the class being described: it stands or falls by working efficiently as a description of the average of the class.