Saturday, December 12, 2009

Movies: Up in the Air

There is something disconcerting about George Clooney, and Up in the Air crystallizes this thing. The ideal icon of contemporary consumer culture, Clooney is a very fine product. He is well-cut, of a nice weight with double-stitched seams. He has fruit in the nose, spicy overtones, and a balanced structure. He presents well, and he has a smooth finish. He is casually warm, and happy to appear at your benefit for Cause X and be photographed. But what does he actually stand for? What are his passions? What is under the worsted wool, the Egyptian cotton, the clean linens, and the sun-toasted, precor-toned skin? Brad Pitt undoubtedly poops. George Clooney? I’m not as certain. He may not have any viscera.

And Up in the Air embraces, however ironically, that hollow Clooneyan panache. Here is the American dream gone wrong, where corporations are our closest friends, and we are more loyal to them than our lovers. As Ryan Bingham, Clooney flies American Airlines between the country’s armpit outposts—Omaha to Houston to Detroit—laying people off (imagine a fin de siecle capitalist structure so bloated and necrotic that it outsources its termination processes). The tragedy of the working American is his boon; the worse the country’s economy get, the more miles he accrues. This is not-so-subtle social criticism from writer/director Jason Reitman, also responsible for Thank You For Smoking and the less-toothy Juno, but in our irony-saturated state, we need a stronger shake, a sharper stick in the eye, than this cotton-swabbed swipe.

Bingham’s stint in the sky isn’t unlike Ed Norton’s character’s at the beginning of Fight Club—single-serving coffee, single-serving cream, single-serving friend. But Fight Club rages against this empty husk of a life, and tears shit up. Tyler Durden’s disorder is a direct and violent engagement with his depression and disconnection. That was 10 years ago. Up in the Air, however ironic or sly, never breaks the circuit of escape. When the taste of what Bingham thought he wanted sticks in his throat, he runs. When the human connection he thinks he’s found turns out to be false, he runs. And as the film concludes, he’s on the plane again, going we don’t know where.

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