Road to the Oscars: ‘Up in the Air’

Tuesday, January 19 by

       

Last week we looked at my frontrunner for this year’s Best Picture, James Cameron’s 3D furry-fest Avatar.  But we must not ignore this year’s other contenders, not the least of which being Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air

Reitman’s third feature came into this year’s award season with a good deal of positive buzz.  However I’m inclined to believe this is an industry-wide apology for lap-dancer Diablo Cody winning an Oscar for the text message transcript she called the Juno screenplay while Reitman’s impressive directing was all but ignored.  As the shiny gold dude on Cody’s mantle gathered dust, Reitman bided his time, content with the knowledge that he would someday be vindicated.  After all, while Diablo’s dad was doing whatever it is fathers do to turn their daughters into strippers, HIS dad was directing Ghostbusters.  Yet while the lesser Reitman is certainly due some recognition, it should not be for Up in the Air, which was the cinematic equivalent of a Southwest Airlines flight over America’s heartland: Flat, dull and seemingly endless.  

Which it had no reason to be.  It was well-directed, well-acted and well-photographed.  But on every other level it suffered from cinematic Asperger’s.  While devoid of laughs — or any other genuine expression of emotion – the cast did include a number of talented comedic day players, including Zach Galifianakis, Danny McBride, Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons and Sam Elliott.  I spent most of the film hoping Clooney would round them up into a makeshift crew, morphing Up In the Air into Ocean’s 15. Alas, such was not the case.  Tepid and lifeless, the film droned on and on like a Sunn0))) record, dancing back and forth between failed attempts at humor and failed attempts at delivering its muddled, faux-earnest message about the importance of settling down and starting a family like every other minivan-driving sheepanoid in gated suburbia.  Why did this message ring so untrue?  Gee, I don’t know, maybe because it was being shilled by HOLLYWOOD?  You know, where a glory hole encounter in the Coco DeVille bathroom is considered a long-term relationship?

In a year when the most talked about film was rendered in better-than-life 3D, it’s ironic that Up in the Air, with its muted colors, seemed somehow less than 2D.  I will give its makers credit for the soundtrack, however.  The use of Elliot Smith was particularly apropos, as it came just as I was ready to plunge a knife into my heart ala the now-deceased songsmith.  George Clooney, for his part, was George Clooney.  As always, the man could charm his way onto Air Force One carrying a blood machete and briefcase full of C-4.   His character, a hired-gun contractor specializing in cutting corporate heads, was a spiritual brother to Aaron Eckhart’s tobacco spin doctor from Thank You for Smoking: A loveable scumbag true, but scum through-and-through.  Yet ironically the filmmakers didn’t seem to realize how reprehensible this character was; he was constantly framed as the good guy.  It would be like if Spielberg had decided to make Amon Goeth the hero of Schindler’s List.  Oh, that wacky Amon!  If only he’d found himself a good woman to settle down with, maybe he wouldn’t have exterminated all those innocents.

Still, these are all just opinions, and particularly jaded opinions at that.  Given its 90% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes I am certainly in the minority here.  So I must once again turn to the objectivity of the scientific method by consulting our benchmarks in order to gauge Up in the Air’s Best Picture chances.

RETARD STRENGTH (0/5): For a movie that seemed tailor-made for awards season, Up in the Air was sadly lacking in retardeds; there was nary a simp or gimp in the entire film.   Had Joaquin Phoenix been available for a walk-on I could have at least awarded it a harelip sympathy point.  I was even tempted to give it a point due to the presence of Danny McBride, who here plays the exact same character he plays in every other movie and TV show.  But while that one character McBride plays is a bit naive and delusional, he is by no means a water-head.  As we established last week, if you’re retarded enough for the Special Olympics, you’re retarded enough for an Oscar.  But ignorance and a mullet alone do not qualify you to swim the 100 meter freestyle with the Down Syndrome kids. 

SOCIAL RELEVANCE (3/5):  Our country’s double-digit unemployment rate is certainly a topic of concern.  Up in the Air’s makers went all-out in their attempt to tackle this hot button issue, using actual laid-off employees to play the victims of Clooney’s corporate downsizer.  I guess the point being that if you’re laid off in real life, your reward is to be laid off by George Clooney in the movies?  The problem is, while the world of corporate downsizing served as Up in the Air’s backdrop, it really had nothing to do with the film in terms of theme or message. Clooney’s character did not learn anything from the people whose lives he’d ruined.  He did not have a change of heart, epiphany or turn over a new leaf.  At the end of the film he’s still going about the business of killing careers.  All he really learned was that perhaps his life would be more complete if he had a girlfriend.  I’m sure his ennui lasted right up until he nailed his next flight attendant in the men’s room on the American Airlines executive lounge.

EPICOSITY (1/5): While Up in the Air’s cinematography was excellent, the airports, hotels and office spaces that comprised its locales did not lend much in terms of Middle Earth style epicocity.  And at 109 minutes it certainly wasn’t Bondarchuk’s War and Peace.  But I will give Up in the Air this: It at least FELT like a three-hour movie. 

UPLIFT (3/5): I suppose if you’re one of the many folks out there who’ve recently lost a job, Up in the Air might offer some solace that at least you’re not alone.  It might help you realize that so long as you have family and loved ones to lean on, you’ll make it through the trials and tribulations of being unemployed in one of the worst economies since the Great Depression.  If you don’t have a family however, you’re pretty much screwed.  At least that seemed to be the message.  We’re supposed to feel sorry for Clooney’s jet-setting downsizer, because while he might be wealthy, handsome, and able to bang random chicks in airport bathrooms, he isn’t happy, right?  RIGHT?  Okay, think about it too hard and the logic falls apart quicker than a Haitian shanty, but I suppose in these dire times people will latch onto anything that makes them feel a little bit better about themselves and their miserable lives. 

TOTAL POWER RANKING: 1.75.  The numbers don’t lie.  Up in the Air has no chance of winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, though I won’t be surprised if it nets a sympathy Oscar or two in the lesser categories (perhaps a Best Adapted Screenplay to complete the circle of irony).  For those of you who feel I’ve been too hard on this film, be assured that I am a fan of its director and firmly believe he will have a long and fruitful career.  However, he’ll have to wait for another awards season to take home a Best Picture trophy.  Perhaps with his next film, Jason Reitman will remember to throw in a few retardeds.
 

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