Like the great Italian Neorealist actors Marcello Mastroianni, Alberto Sordi, Vittorio Gassman and Gian Maria Volontè, Robert De Niro also has the gift for playing working-class men. In Everybody’s Fine, an American remake of a Giuseppe Tornatore tearjerker, De Niro is aged, wearing bifocals, with beautifully swept gray strands in his hair. As a widower and retiree trying to draw together the four adult offspring he alienated as children, De Niro shows a life of toil. His preoccupied, withdrawn facial expressions have a defensive sensitivity that cuts far deeper into the experience of work and sacrifice than anything George Clooney does in the labor force comedy Up in the Air.
And like Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in the unfairly dismissed The Bucket List, De Niro brings jolts of depth and feeling to a treacly premise. An amazing flashback scene pits a recalcitrant De Niro against a group of needy child actors who cannot match his profundity. It’s a shame De Niro didn’t find a script to adequately recount a fuller range of workingman’s crisis. Director Kirk Jones’ yellow-tinted scheme swamps this great actor in sentimentality.
Jason Reitman’s movies come in three forms: Rubbish (Thank You For Smoking), Crap (Juno) and Swill (Up in the Air). It’s painful to admit that Juno is the best of them, yet they’re all fatuous attempts at combining entertainment with meaningful social commentary. It’s supposed to be clever that Up in the Air casts George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a “transition specialist.” That title means he’s hired by downsizing corporations to do face-to-face firings. Reitman’s concession to our current economic and workplace woes is to intersperse Clooney’s hatchet jobs with real-life, vérité testimonies from the dispossessed. This is swill because it’s meant to placate some in the threatened, dissociated audience by giving them their 15 minutes of teary-eyed, panicky, angry fame.
Only seriously deluded people could enjoy Reitman’s funny-sad whiplash. His effort goes into romanticizing—even sentimentalizing—Bingham rather than analyzing the personal or political motivation for his draconian career choice. As Up in the Air glides over Bingham’s enjoyment of his travel perks, credit card bonuses, on-the-road dalliances (with Vera Farmiga) and perturbed training of newbie exec Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), it completely falsifies the work world. As if grasping the secret motive of TV’s The Office, Reitman disregards the boredom of routine, the disillusionment of self-conscious exploitation, the anomie of constant travel. He must have never had a “real” job; he keeps reality on hold for smart talk, as when Natalie calls Bingham’s life “a cocoon of self-banishment.”
This poorly contrasts the work-world view of Everybody’s Fine where each of De Niro’s children represents a different level of economic opportunity and sacrifice, reacting to their father’s example. De Niro puts such a lifetime of error in his father-to-child confession, “I never gave it much thought.” And when he hears bad news, the five complicated thoughts that flood his eyes is a sign of artistic conviction such as Reitman could never imagine.
At least Juno expressed screenwriter Diablo Cody’s confident post-feminist resentment, but Farmiga’s derision of Bingham— “You’re a break from our normal lives, a parenthesis”—is not even Juno-clever. Up in the Air merely flaunts Reitman’s media savvy. It’s as if he studied glibness at Mike Nichols University. Clooney looks browbeaten when he isn’t simply being smarmy. A motivational speech about business travel lacks the existential obsession of Ryan Reynolds’ motivational speeches in the truly sophisticated Chaos Theory.
Clooney is instantly straight-jacketed with this cutthroat spiel: “Anybody whoever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are now. It’s because they sat there that they were able to do it.” Sounds like Hollywood guff, but Reitman must half-believe it because a later scene has Bingham admonish a fired, middle-aged family man (J.K Simmons) to, “Go do what makes you happy,” as though family pride was not what pleased him. This juvenile sense of seriousness exposes Clooney’s poor taste in scripts this year.
As with Men Who Stare at Goats, Clooney’s always trying to emulate Paddy Chayefsky’s superficially topical social commentary, but Up in the Air is lightweight. Clooney thinks a Network-ish line such as, “We are here to make limbo tolerable,” is witty rather than just insensitive. And like Matt Damon in The Informant!, Clooney displays more Soderbergh deprecation of Red State America: Bingham travels with a graphic identifying every stopover: Kansas City, Omaha, Tulsa, Des Moines—anomic, snarkily disrespected towns. This obscene movie uses snark to pacify the contemporary unemployment crisis without acknowledging that the crisis is the result of policy and personal profit—and because snark is escapism for the privileged.
Up in the Air
Directed by Jason Reitman
Runtime: 109 min.
Directed by Kirk Jones
Runtime: 100 min.
Tags: george clooney
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