Too much air up there

As we brace for awards season, I buckled up and went to see UP IN THE AIR, on the lips of many-a-critic as contender for Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor. So why did I find it so … airy? As in, without much substance?

And I’ll readily admit, I like some smooth Clooney romance just as much as the other guy, and Vera Farmiga is a great partner for George in a little heated hub-bub. (Although nothing, but nothing, tops Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, in Soderbergh’s OUT OF SIGHT.) AIR does have some great elements – sharp dialogue, snappy performances, and an organic, surprising twist that plays beautifully – so what’s the problem?

Unable to pin it to the map, I consulted a few of my favorite (although sometimes despised, if I don’t agree with them) critics  – J. (Hoberman) and David (Edelstein). J. and David, what went wrong?

According to Hoberman in The Village Voice, director Jason Reitman is up to his old JUNO tricks, “conjuring a troubling reality and then wishing it away.” And it’s true – Clooney fires what seems to be half the Midwest in his job as a Hired Terminator, and then Reitman, using the authentically recently-fired to create a sort of documentary montage, makes them talk about how cuddly their loved ones are in such times of trouble. Huh? And the fact that nobody in JUNO was really upset with this kid for getting pregnant (“Ahhh, Juno! Well, it’s alright, you’re just so funny when ya talk that it’s fine that you’re a baby havin a baby.”) was equally baffling. Both JUNO’s Juno and AIR’s Ryan Bingham transcend the ugliness of reality in a sort of spirit-guide-lite manner, relying on charm and wit to side step the muck, existing finally as the ultimate vehicle that allows us all to realize and express our deeper humanity.

According to David at New York magazine, who was far kinder to the film, AIR’s problem in part lies in its predictability: “…We can see where the movie’s headed from 3,000 miles away. Bingham has to learn that connections aren’t just things you make in airports.” Okay, sure. Agreed. But many a romantic comedy presents elements unique enough to allow us to ignore the fact that certain plot structures, are, well, inevitable. I’m more with Hoberman …  this slick apparatus, which slides down easy with jaunty score here and tricky edit there, ultimately fails to deliver the social critique it promises (technology disconnects; real relationships require ‘grounding’) by softening its own edges into some sort of lesson that empathy and familial love cures all. A film like ELECTION, on the other hand, never gives in to the softness, its plot tumbling toward dark revelations, many unredeemed, of how a system of ethics might function in one American institution. And you don’t even walk out depressed! Was that the studio’s fear in making a movie about the recession?