Up in the Air – Review

Remember, I generally hate movies.

And Up in the Air is no exception.

One thing that plagues this film is actually not the movie’s fault.  It was while watching this movie that I realized that George Clooney has joined the short list of elite cinema icons who are always immediately larger than their roles.  Like Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep before him, Clooney has now achieved a level of fame that makes it impossible to ever quite achieve the suspension of disbelief necessary to see him as his character rather than as George Clooney.  It’s not his fault – his performance was the lone bright spot in a movie otherwise filled with lackluster performances.  But Clooney has achieved that rarified status of being a star who simply transcends any one film.

I became painfully aware of this during Up in the Air in large part because almost everything else about the movie is so forgettable.

The plot is pretty typical romance fare.  Clooney (his character’s name is irrelevant) lives a lonely life flying around firing people for a living.  He spends so much time “up in the air” that the notion of settling down is unthinkable to him.  Unthinkable, that is, until the dual force of an intriguing woman and a young up-and-comer who wants to conduct business via the internet threatens the lifestyle that he’s used to.  So, he has to start reevaluating things.  It doesn’t help that the young up-and-comer, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), travels with him for a bit to help her learn the business and she, of course, questions his lifestyle at every turn.  At the same time, frequent encounters with his new-found love interest, Alex (Vera Farminga), start to put some new ideas into his head.

Based on that premise, I’m sure most movie-goers can figure out how the next hour and a half unfolds.  At first he’s frustrated about having Natalie tagging along and wants to keep his relationship with Alex purely physical.  As time wears on he comes to form a bond with both women, and cracks start to appear in his emotional armor until, of course, we come to find out that he’s really a big, sensitive, Hugh Grant of a man.

Meanwhile, the film references our country’s current economic troubles in an effort to appear topical.  There were some potentially interesting ideas there for the taking: the ethics of a business that actually booms due to economic collapse or the irony of Clooney making a living out of firing obsolete employees only to then become obsolete himself, for instance.   But instead of going into these issues, we get a predictable story and weak attempts at humor, like when Clooney thinks the flight attendant is asking if he wants “the cancer,” but is actually asking if he wants “the can, sir,” or the moment when he turns the size of his frequent flier account into a euphemism for his penis.  Even as the film seems to beg for an investigation of some of the complexities that arise, the first nine tenths of the movie adamantly refuse to go beyond its laughably predictable surface.

But then, the movie takes an interesting turn.  I won’t say exactly what happens, but I will say that the final fifteen minutes or so were not at all what I was expecting.  They take the romance/date movie genre and turn it on its head – there were still some really predictable aspects to how everything unfolds, but overall it took me by surprise.

Unfortunately, the surprise just wasn’t enough to warrant the previous hour and a half of cliches.  If the director hadn’t held back, if he’d just let on that this film was a deconstruction of the romance genre right from the start, and played with that concept throughout, I might have been interested.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he wasted the film’s potential on over-worn plot devices and bad jokes, while saving all of the film’s interest until the end, at which point it was too late.  In fact, had it not been for Clooney’s undeniable charisma, I might not have even stuck around to see the final twists and turns.  In the end, I did stick around, and the final few scenes were worth the fifteen minutes or so that they were on the screen.  They weren’t, though, even close to being worth the hour and thirty four minutes that I had to invest to get there.

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