Reviewing this movie and The Departed is gonna bug me. Movies where I call the twist from the trailer will always bug me when it comes to review time. I can’t just say “the ending is x” or “Vera Farmiga has a y” like I want to. I so badly want to mention the end at the beginning, but what purpose would that serve, other than alienating everyone? I suppose that at the end of the day, I have to give every movie its fair shot to impress me, even if the ending blows goats in its predictability.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a roving gnome, traveling the nation firing people when their bosses don’t want to do it face-to-face. He meets a woman named Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent flyer who seduces him by appealing to his status-oriented personality. They have great sex in almost every part of his hotel room. It’s touching, really. Ryan is called in off the road by his boss for a meeting at headquarters. A young woman named Natalie (Anna Kendrick) has found a solution to the difficulty of firing people in person: use a webcam. Ryan immediately sees the problems in this strategy. Sure, it saves time, but it loses humanity and loses the live tracking of unpredictable people. Ryan’s boss thus dares Ryan to take Natalie on the road to see how he fires people. Here is where most of the movie starts.
Up in the Air is a character study of Ryan Bingham, and for the most part, he’s a fascinating man. It feels like a natural spiritual sequel to Thank You for Smoking, but it’s darker. More melancholy. Nobody in this movie is happy. Maybe it’s that firing people isn’t a good topic for a comedy in a recession. I remember the Jason Reitman that thought that a tobacco lobbyist would be a great protagonist long after everyone had realized that smoking is pretty much inhaling toxins. So why shouldn’t firing people be a funny, charming occupation? Just because people are really being fired now? People really died of cancer from cigarettes sixty years ago, didn’t stop Thank You for Smoking being one of my favourite movies.
I guess I should get around to saying this, but I can’t give this movie a good college try. I just can’t. It’s been going the entire runtime, telling me that Ryan Bingham is the bad guy. And you know what, in another person’s movie, he would be. But I don’t want to watch that movie. You’re telling me, Jason Reitman, you got George Clooney, voted sexiest man alive several times by now, to play a guy who has (according to you) no redeeming characteristics. He’s supposed to be a villain, but I can’t get behind that.
By now, I should be allowed one of my trademark moments of absolute evil. Firing people is good. It’s necessary. It’s dirty, it’s tough, it’s unpleasant, but it’s a hell of a lot more sympathetic than peddling cigarettes to six year olds through science fiction movies starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. Somehow, Jason, you made firing people from a noble profession into something that should be vilified. People get hired. People get fired. Either one of these situations is great for comedy. And the guy who goes around the country, firing people and inspiring them to take control of their lives is somehow more evil than a man who sells cancer to a nation? What is wrong with you, Jason Reitman?
Yet, the entire movie follows very logically from my assumed prejudice that Ryan is a bad guy. Ryan is cruel to a young woman like a bad guy, he takes her advice on love and living like a bad guy, he tries to turn his life around like a bad guy. What part of his life needed turning around? The webcam solution to firing people is treated as good because it saves jetfuel and money for the company. Not only that, but its portrayed as wholesome and kind. It’s not kind. It’s impersonal. It’s rude. It’s unbelievably cruel. Imagine trying to tell your best friend that your mother died over Skype. The phone is more personal, because at least then you don’t have to awkwardly dodge eye contact.
Natalie, the young woman, starting up at a company that fires people, is treated as a godsend. For some reason, no one involved in the creative end of this movie saw the hypocrisy of a woman who simultaneously still clings to a vision of love she had when she was a teenager who invents the most cruel and dispassionate method of telling someone their position at the company has been terminated. How am I supposed to believe that someone this naïve could invent something this cruel? Oh right, it’s always the nice ones who unintentionally ruin the world.
Alex, the older woman, is well-played, certainly. She’s a mystery. She’s not as grand a mystery as Charles Foster Kane, but we still don’t know where she started or where she’ll end. If I said there’s a revelation about her character toward the end of the movie, would you be able to guess it? I and a thousand moviegoers did. I like her when she’s on the road. She’s a cruel, honest person who sees no point in sugarcoating her words. I had hope for her in this movie. Rosebud.
You know what? This movie would be fantastic if I thought Ryan Bingham’s job was unnecessary and evil. But mean people are needed. We’re in a recession. Someone’s gotta fire everybody. My mom and I disagreed on the philosophical message of The Hurt Locker. With this movie, I take her stance that she had for that one: Whoever does the job, whoever gets it done. Whoever can get the fired person out the door without killing themself is a great man and should be treated as a hero. The movie does a great job of telling the story that follows from a premise I just can’t buy, no matter who’s selling. I suppose in that way, it’s not the movie that’s wrong. It’s me.
But is it really necessary to debase the one man who’s doing the dirty work for your entire country while the rich people hiring him to lay off their employees don’t get vilified? You’re writing a tragedy about the janitor’s failed attempt to change his life and letting the guy who defecated on the floor of his office walk out of the building, smiling and free. TWO AND A HALF STARS