Thursday, December 24, 2009

Up In The Air Is An Awful Movie

As longtime readers of this space know, I happen to think Armond White's a first-class contrarian idiot. For example, recently he claimed that "all [Sandra] Bullock’s films promote an edifying sense of human experience—she has an instinct for what people like to see," a claim which (a) is utter bullshit and (b) a claim which Armond himself doesn't even believe in - see his review of The Proposal mere months ago , or his for-once on-target evisceration of Crash - and is just making to befuddle the idiots who read his shit into thinking he's some sort of genius intellectual who sees things beyond the ken of the 99.999999% of the world that thinks Bullock's a hack. That said, the nice thing about Armond White is that he's the one critic in America, aside from the good people at Slant and Reverse Shot, who I can always count on to see through the Oscar bait de jour - though of course he usually does so for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, I was happy to come home from the Tray Family's Christmas Eve Movie Viewing and see that Armond had trashed Up In The Air.

That pointless prelude out of the way, Up In The Air might be the worst Best Picture favorite in quite some time. Unfortunately, most of the critics who have bashed UITA have done so for purely political reasons - "the movie doesn't care enough about fired people." J.R. Jones of the Chicago Reader went so far as to accuse the movie of being a modern day Cary Grant film - and mean that as a bad thing! Frankly, if this thing were remotely comparable to a modern day Cary Grant film, I wouldn't care if it glorified cannibalism or the slave trade. (Depending, of course, on which Cary Grant film this thing would supposedly be a modern day version of - he made a lot of bad pictures.) No, the trouble with the movie is that there's just simply nothing aesthetically, dramatically, comedically, intellectually, whatever adverb you like, good about it.

Aesthetically, the movie's composed of several types of shots. First, you've got your pointless quick-cut montages of Clooney packing his luggage, or negotiating an airport, or going to a wedding. Second, there are a lot of aerial shots of cities and slightly tilted establishing shots of cheap hotels that look like something I might've shot in high school photo class. (For some strange reason, the director saw fit to actually shoot in each of the many cities where Clooney's character fires people, although he never actually shows you these cities, so that, with the exception of differences in weather, every location looks absolutely the same as every other.) Third, you have your conversations. Each and every one is all shot-reverse shot, and each of these shots is an over the shoulder shot, with the listener's shoulder or ear completely out of focus. Over the course of the film, you get very familiar with what George Clooney's blurry shoulder looks like. Everytime Clooney speaks to Vera Farmiga or whomever, you see his face and her shoulder; then, when she has her line, you see her face and his shoulder. There are no reaction shots, no off-camera speakers, no close-ups, and very rarely any shots with more than one interlocutor in a frame; it's just this cutting rhythm ad nauseam. Fourth, in moments of high emotional impact, you just might get a long shot of 10 seconds or less, with the camera banally zooming back to indicate so and so's loneliness.

With the director bringing absolutely nothing cinematically to the table, to the point where, by dint of his inability to ever hold a shot for more than 5 seconds, he manages to kill each and every scene where the audience might be actually moved to something resembling an emotional response to what's going on on screen, the movie's forced to rely completely on its actors and its script. Unfortunately, Clooney's a void. I know he's supposed to be something of a void - that's the point! - but he's such a bland, charmless (if handsome) void that the movie becomes quite a bore, as he's in every scene. He's slick enough, but doesn't have a personality to speak of. Exchange Clooney for Aaron Eckhart, who starred in the director's first film, Thank You For Smoking, and you might begin to have something watchable.

As for the script, it's a joke; the whole thing reads and even sounds like its own high school English paper explication of itself. Every event in the movie is freighted with symbolism or cheap irony, every fifth line is a little thesis statement. The Cornell grad who comes in to Clooney's termination firm and convinces his boss to switch to firing by webcam is shocked that her boyfriend broke up with her by text. The irony never seems to dawn on Miss Cornell, presumably to make us feel smarter for "catching on" to these hidden depths. Clooney gets his 10 million air-miles card at, of course, the very moment in the story where he's finally begun to yearn for a solid home. When the pilot comes to his seat to congratulate him and asks him where he lives, Clooney replies, "I live up here." Deep! There's even a pathetic third act where he comes back to his native Wisconsin to attend his sister's marriage and discovers how real middle-class people with real relationships live. At which point he takes his fuckbuddy/partner in frequent flyer derring-do back to his high school and gets back in touch with his childhood. At this point in the film, a happy little indie-folk song starts playing, and the movie is so badly directed that when he's sitting in his old high school gym with fuckbuddy and his sister calls to tell him that his future brother-in-law suddenly has cold feet and Clooney needs to come to the church fast to change future bro-in-law's mind, the song keeps playing. Either suggesting that the editing was done by a robot, or worse, that the potentially dashed marriage only matters to the director, and is supposed to matter to us, on the level of Clooney returning to his family and doing cutesy little family business shit, in which case the jaunty indie-folk playing over the "your sister is getting dumped by her fiance on the day of her wedding" call would make sense... in a perverse way. This sort of trivialization of other people's real lives as some kind of vehicle to Clooney's process of self-discovery goes on throughout the film, if you can even call this teledrama a film. Critics of more liberal sensibilities have jumped on the similar way the armies of terminated workers (including one cavalierly glossed-over suicide) are treated by the movie, but the problem isn't really political; it's a blithe indifference to anything in the film but Clooney's trite personal drama. The thing is though that the movie could get away with this sort of solipsism if it knew how to make Clooney's character matter to us, but it fails even at that, ultimately ceasing to care about the character as a person at all and treating him as a pat parable of our collective selfishness and alienation. Which hardly seems to be an accurate diagnosis of That Which Ails America; as the movie somehow forgets there are a whole lot more faceless fired people in America than there are George Clooneys. But really, who even cares about the muddled message of this piece of junk on stilts when there are ever so many things wrong with it besides whatever it's feebly trying to say?


GMenon said...

Couldn't agree more. Worst movie I've seen in a while. Where was the conflict/ resolution. I thought I would throw up if I heard his "backpack" speech ONE more time!

Little Gordie said...

Right on. I really have been blown away by the fact that this movie received any positive reviews. If I hadn't been with a pretty large group of friends at this movie, I would've walked out midway.

Badmon3333 said...

The only two movies Sandra Bullock was ever half-decent in are "Speed" and "A Time to Kill," and I can think of about a half-dozen actresses who probably could have done both better. Didn't plan on seeing 'Up in the Air,' DEFinitely don't plan to now.

Christina said...

Up in the Air is REALLY BAD. Please don't waste your money. I love George Clooney but what was he thinking? This movie was banal, badly acted, badly directed, badly produced, badly written. I kept waiting for it to begin but it never did.