About a week ago, Stacy and I saw Up in the Air for one of our cherished (and too seldom) nights out (well, it was an afternoon out, but close enough). I enjoyed director Jason Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking and felt that his Juno was better than the other 2007 best picture nominees that I had seen (yes, including No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood), and so was looking forward to his latest. And I knew a fair bit about the movie going into it — if you listen to public radio podcasts about movies and entertainment, Reitman had been on all of them.
This is probably his weakest effort of his three films. It’s not a bad movie, and I thought it was basically okay. I was never bored, and didn’t want to leave midway, which for me is a sign that the film has something going for it. But the idea that Up in the Air is seriously considered a Best Picture candidate, much less considered the odds-on favorite, is appalling. That such a trifle, a wisp of a film is accorded such plaudits confuses me (until I look at the other candidates and realize, Hoo-boy, this was a lame year for movies.)
My dad’s tweet about the film captures my feelings pretty well: “UP IN THE AIR is a balloon filled with the hot stuff; it justs floats aloft, going nowhere fast, then deflates and crashes with a dull thud.” And I don’t mind that for the first 2/3rds or so the film goes nowhere. But, yeah, when it decides that it needs a resolution, it turns a corner toward an unfulfilling climax and denouement.
I think where Reitman fell down was a matter of tone. As he explained in his various interviews, the film was first conceived in a pre-recession world, and was originally planned to play a lot more arch, perhaps more like Thank You For Smoking. The recession hits, and no longer can you play laying people off for laughs. However, Reitman couldn’t let go of the humor altogether (it’s clearly his natural inclination), and so you get this tonal mish-mosh, and the movie loses its emotional resonance. Compare that with The Informant!, a similarly-scaled film, also relying on a movie star to carry it, but where the director (Steven Soderbergh) unwaveringly struck the same amplified tone throughout the entire film.
All that said, there is one remarkably powerful element in Up in the Air, one that struck me on first viewing, and has haunted me since. As Reitman explained in interviews, most of the people we see getting laid off in the film are people who actually had been recently laid off, and were asked to re-create the horrible moment of their firing. There’s one guys in particular, an African-American man, who’s eye starts twitching uncontrollably, and asks the firer: “What are you going to do this weekend? You have money in your bank? You got gas in your gas tank? You going to take your kids out to Chuck E. Cheese?” That man’s performance (and it’s hard to call it a performance because it doesn’t at all seem “performed”) floored me. It’s the one thing in that entire movie that stuck with me more than a couple hours later.