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Let’s be honest here. If 2009 were a normal year, I wouldn’t be writing this article. People wouldn’t be tripping all over themselves to criticize Up In The Air. George Clooney’s latest would be a generally well-received borderline Oscar contender, prophesized to get three or four nominations, maybe surprise experts and win one. The movie just has that feel about it. It’s really beautiful in a lot of subtle, underwhelming ways, and upon its initial release, most cinemagoers seemed to agree. But 2009 was not a normal year.
The Governor of Illinois was forcibly removed from office for trying to sell our president’s fucking Senate Seat to the highest bidder. The once lowly Chicago Blackhawks led the NHL in attendance. Avatar won the Golden Globe for Best Picture. Avatar, that poorly outlined, backstory-lacking shitshow about sacred trees and Sigourney Weaver getting old. So, we’re left with the very real possibility of a very good, not great film like Up In The Air cleaning up at The Academy Awards, which, like a Dane Cook stand-up special, is bringing the haters out of the woodwork. ”It’s too slow. Nothing really happens. It’s too sad. There’s not any likeable characters.” Boo-fucking-hoo. Up In The Air is a very good movie, which, through no fault of its own, was the best film released in 2009. It’s no American Beauty. It’s no Annie Hall. Hell, it’s not even Milk, but it is the best Hollywood had to offer, and it’s about time we started celebrating all the reasons why it’s really, really good.
First though, an analogy. Recently, I went to a four star Italian steakhouse in Chicago. I ordered a New York Strip, rare, with a plain baked potato and a twelve dollar glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. My father got a Filet Mignon, medium rare, with mixed vegetables and a fifteen dollar glass of Pinot Noir. My mother ordered the salmon with a Long Island Iced-Tea. Almost immediately, she regretted her decision. It didn’t matter that her salmon was delicious, that her Long Island Iced-Tea was passable. She didn’t get steak--at a steakhouse; so, by comparison, her salmon was a colossal disappointment. Well, 2009 on film was dinner at a nice steakhouse, only the meat’s gone bad and your only ordering options are seafood or pasta. Deal with it. The Kansas City Rib Eye isn’t happening. There’s no Shawshank Redemption, no Sting, Clockwork Orange or Shakespeare In Love. There’s Up In The Air, a pretty damn good glazed salmon dish, which should be appreciated on its own delicious merits, rather than as steak’s fishy sister.
George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is perhaps more than anything else, self-reliant, which is a slippery slope for a main character. It would be easy to hate him; it would be easy to write him off as yet another selfish introvert who’s shut out those who loved him, but behind George Clooney’s smug, likeable eyes, Ryan Bingham’s isolation seems more like a well-thought out choice than a defense against the world. There’s loneliness, sure, but there’s also uninhibited adventure. Ryan Bingham knows he’s different, isolated, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing? Up In The Air never judges Ryan for his outlook, it just watches, trusts George Clooney to present a realistic enough portrayal to let viewers decide for themselves.
Anna Kendrick’s Natalie Keener is, well, she’s annoying. She’s that girl who never puts her hand down in class, the chick who gives you dirty looks for going through the iPass lane without an iPass, she’s the sheltered bitch with an Ivy League Education who waltzes in to a company and pitches full-scale alterations for a business she only knows on paper. And, yet, under Anna Kendrick’s direction, she’s somehow loveable. It’s not her fault for suggesting ways to increase efficiency. That’s just good business. It’s not her fault she has the occasional inappropriate emotional outburst. Her boyfriend dumped her over text message. She’s flawed, sure, but she’s also talented and loveable, a complex character with enough depth to be either sympathetic or unsavory, depending on perspective.
Two main characters, a male and a female, who aren’t related or falling in love. It seems so natural amidst the chaos of Up In The Air, you almost forget it’s not the conquering or copulating, bromancing or bamboozling we’re used to. Film is rarely outside the box, and pacing is almost always true to form. Like a rollercoaster increasing in acceleration, a movie’s pacing builds up enough steam and goes upside down the right amount of times before it grinds to a halt after the high note. It’s not a critique, it’s not an endorsement, it just is. The big game occurs with one or two scenes left. The hero defeats the villain in the last twenty minutes. Films must give us a reason to continue, a resolution to tie up, and then they must end. Up In The Air doesn’t end after the big argument. It doesn’t stop when Ryan Bingham reaches his mileage goal. It goes on because Up In The Air isn’t about solving any of those crises or having an a-ha moment where you realize one life view is wrong. It’s just a story about a guy and the people he encounters. They subtly affect him in the way new people can affect everyone’s lives. They come in, they leave, and he’s mostly still himself.
The Golden Globes chose Avatar. The Oscars may very well choose The Hurt Locker or Precious or (god forbid) agree on Avatar. I wish I could vote for Philadelphia. I wish I could vote for The Godfather. I wish I could vote for a lot of films, but out of this year’s candidates, out of what Hollywood had to offer in 2009, I choose Up In The Air, a pretty damn good movie which doesn’t cut corners, doesn’t cop out and always stays true to itself.
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