02 January 2011
The first portion of Up in the Air plays like Fight Club declawed, with a sardonic voiceover using lists of products and concepts to reassure us that our lifestyles based on nihilism and cynicism are thoroughly justified. I know it's based on a novel (and I know the book has a major subplot about Ryan Bingham suffering from cancer, that I can't help but wonder what the movie might have been like with, but in the end I think I like it just fine as-is), and I can't say if the style comes out of the novel or not, but it's hard to imagine this story existing if someone, either Walter Kirn or the screenwriter Sheldon Turner (or maybe Reitman himself, also credited) hadn't seen the Fincher film or read the Palahniuk book. Of course that's just the set-up of the book, and after act one the two tend for the most part to part ways. Where Fight Club goes on to challenge your expectations of anarchy, masculinity, and taking back your agency from a castrative culture, Up in the Air is a challenge to concepts of isolation and casual objectivism and of course, a romantic dramedy about unemployment and getting older, wanting to settle down. Like Juno and Thank You For Smoking, there are themes present but they're pretty unfocused, hitting broad swaths that do not necessarily complement each other, but at least they don't often clash. Reitman, I think, works in thematic subplots more than thematic throughlines. That is to say, sometimes every single scene in a film speaks intelligently to whatever the "theme" or "themes" of a story are, often being about two things at once. Here it feels a little more to me like a sitcom, with an A story, a B story, and a C story, and each plotline has its own intelligent theme and subject matter, but they do not necessarily contribute to each other directly. In Juno this left me feeling like the story was schizophrenic, and began as one thing (a coming-of-age morality tale about a quirky, strong-willed girl and her unexpected pregnancy) and ended as something else (a romcom about picking the right guy and staying with him, dependent on the dull, milquetoast charms of an underplaying Michael Cera in shorty gym shorts). The charm was good but the story felt like two trains colliding. Here the charm is just as good (smarter, wiser, less quirky) and the various plots and themes at least weaved together into more of a single dramatic story.
On a dramatic front, it was fun to look at the characters in this. Anna Kendrick's Natalie kept pushing caricature to the point of breaking, but every time I was on the verge of hating her she'd redeem herself by making interesting choices in performance and character. (An easy example is the moment when she cryingly meets Alex, which is both funny and telling of her character in many ways.) It felt like Natalie had an outer layer of faith in the systems around her (marriage, love, education, her firing-my-videochat system) but that covered an inner core of extreme vulnerability, uncertainty, and doubt bordering on panic. Likewise it felt like Ryan Bingham had an outer layer of cynicism and disdain for those systems, with an inner core of loneliness, regret, and doubt. The inner turmoil and the reversed-polarities of these two made them a nice, if artificial, match-up. (Almost everything about this film feels artificial; you either accept that or you don't.)
The only fault I feel like pointing out here is, on second viewing, it's a lot harder to ever sympathize with Alex, Vera Forgmiga's too-good-to-be-true counterpart for Ryan. As a dark reflection and a worst-case foil for Ryan's emotional and moral states, I get it, but there are a number of times where it becomes clear she's simply living a double life. She may justify it any number of ways, but her no-nonsense strong-woman routine just hides the kind of lying scoundrel men are traditionally considered monsters for being. She's practically the creepy father with a different family in every city he visits. It was good of the movie not to soften that by letting Ryan forgive her entirely (or immediately, anyway; because let's be realistic) but it was odd to breeze over just how bad she was to everyone who loved her in her life. Maybe that's my own personal morals showing through, but for a film about Ryan Bingham's self-examining soul-search to slide right by what felt like a major blow to his self-image -- to have the person you think of as "just like you but with a vagina" revealed as so deceptive (and self-deceptive) seems... well, it feels like in classic films when they'd try to sneak something by the censorship boards, but in reverse. Anyway, something in her character doesn't sit right on second watch, maybe because there aren't enough clues or hints about the nature of her life when the subject comes up, and that paints her as a baldfaced, unabashed liar (worse than a cheater). But for the most part, the film is fun, breezy, but with some dramatic heft and thoughtful stuff going on under the surface. For my money, this is the follow-up I wanted to the very similar Thank You For Smoking. I'll continue considering Juno an aberrant blip on the director's trajectory, until he proves me wrong.