Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

‘Juno’ creator finds success with no-frills ‘Up in the Air’

Credit: O. Johnson

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching an exorbitant amount of films every year it is that good ones, though not necessarily great ones, tend to be deceiving. These films are not Stephen Colbert-brand parodies that on their surface present an opposite to their underlying position, but rather subtle satires that send you adrift before brutally and bluntly returning you to reality. The technique is an intelligent one that I’m slowly warming up to and the style is exemplified by Jason Reitman’s  “Up in the Air.”

In some ways, “Up in the Air” strongly evokes one of Reitman’s previous films, “Thank You for Smoking,” about a tobacco lobbyist veiled as a scientific researcher. In both films, the protagonists are almost entirely removed from what most of us would call ‘society’ and find themselves at odds with those who uphold the norm. Yet, unlike “Thank You for Smoking,” which would fall into the Stephen Colbert-brand parody, “Up in the Air” moves from scene to scene without emitting much of a whiff of what it’s ultimately trying to do. Reitman’s film doesn’t resolve itself, doesn’t opt for a clichéd message about love or marriage and doesn’t succumb to judging the actions of its principle character.

Many critics have pointed out the presentness of this film (i.e. how in tune it is with the condition of the United States in an enormous economic crisis) and its astute blend of, as one critic put it, the “light and dark, hilarious and tragic, romantic and real.” These superficial anecdotes, however, are precisely what the film, in its final frames, eschews and mocks as representing a faux reality. The film isn’t, as Rene Rodriguez of the Miami Herald put it, “optimistic about the perpetual themes that preoccupy so many movies that endure the test of time: Life is better with company. And everybody needs a co-pilot.” Rather, it is decidedly the opposite.

The film, based on a 2001 novel by the same title, tells the story of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a career transition counselor who flies around the country firing people on behalf of their employers. His life is almost always in transition, going from airport to airport, hotel to hotel and interview to interview while spending less than 60 days a year in an apartment most would consider his “home.” His “home” is something else, something most loathe: airport travel. Suddenly, however, his weltanschauung is threatened by a next-generation idea, promoted by the young hot-shot Natalie (Anna Kendrick), to digitize the process that has allowed him, thus far, to elude lifestyle normativity.  To mediate this culture clash between change and the status quo, the film introduces Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent flier, into Ryan’s life and they soon begin a casual relationship.

All this (what others call the ‘plot’) is beside the point. Instead, the point is to understand why Ryan does what he does and thinks the way he thinks. To this end, the most important scene in the film, and my personal favorite, occurs when Ryan attempts to motivate cold-footed Jim, his future brother-in-law. Ryan spews some cheezeball lines about how “life is better with company” and “everyone needs a co-pilot,” which Jim subsequently calls him out for saying. Then, he asks Ryan the very question that drives his life, philosophy and outlook: “What should I do?” That is the question. Thinking, feeling and existing only matter to the extent that you do something with them. Otherwise, they’re worthless.

The movie, for my money, ends with this sobering and affecting question. No frills. Just another thoughtful, well-executed slice of life from the man that brought us the beloved “Juno” and will surely bring us many more classics.

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