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Up in the Air

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Na’vi vs. the IEDs.

Y’all are probably on top of this by now, but the 2010 Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and the big fight of the evening looks to be blue cats versus bombs: Avatar and The Hurt Locker led the pack with nine nominations each. (Before the meme sets in, it should be noted that former married couple James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow have been very supportive of each other’s films from the start.) Anyway, some quick thoughts:

  • Best Picture: Avatar. Out of the ten nominees, it’s a two-movie race, and this particular picture didn’t even make my personal top 20 for last year. There might even be a King of the World backlash after Titanic running the table in 1998. But I’m guessing, given its box office, that Dances With Thundersmurfs (in 3D) will win this pretty easily. Still, it’s nice to see A Serious Man and District 9 get their due. The biggest WTF here is The Blind Side. C’mon now, really?

  • Best Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart. Oscar got four out of five right (Jeff Bridges, Colin Firth, George Clooney, Jeremy Renner), and of those, I’d probably go with both Firth and Renner over Bridges. But, if I had my druthers, Sam Rockwell would have been nominated and won for Moon. (He should’ve taken Morgan Freeman’s Invictus spot.) Anyway, I’m guessing Bridges is a lock.

  • Best Actress: Carey Mulligan, An Education. Unless voters factor in her youth against her, I’m going with Sally Sparrow. I haven’t seen any of the other films in contention in this category, but I’m guessing Helen Mirren (The Last Station) and particularly Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia) will be considered already amply rewarded, and Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) will lose votes on account of…

  • Best Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique, Precious. I haven’t seen the film, but from what I can gather, this is a lockity-lock. Given that the Up in the Air vote will split between Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, the only real competition is Maggie Gyllenhaal for Crazy Heart. (Consensus seems to be Penelope Cruz (Nine) has been nominated for the wrong film, and she should be here for Broken Embraces.)

  • Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglorious Basterds. Like the rest of the categories above, this seems pretty set to me already. With the possible exception of Woody Harrelson for The Messenger, it’s hard to imagine any of the others getting close.

  • Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker. The consolation prize to losing Best Picture to Avatar, this Oscar will be richly deserved.

  • Best Animated Film: Up. Again, seems like a lock, given that it’s the only nominee also listed in the Best Picture category. Still, I’d rather see this go to Coraline or The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

  • Writing (Adapted Screenplay): This one’s more of a toss-up, and I get the sense it will probably end up being my bracket-buster. I kinda feel like I have to pick In the Loop, my favorite movie of 2009. But I could also see this being where District 9 or Up in the Air get their recognition for the evening. (Precious too might be a contender, but, again, will likely lose some votes on account of the Mo’Nique lock.)

  • Writing (Original Screenplay): Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker. I’m glad to see the Coens on here, but they’ve won this before, as has Quentin Tarantino.

  • Documentary Feature: The Cove. I want to see several of these, particularly Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America. But all word seems to point to dolphins in peril.

  • Foreign Language Film: The White Ribbon. Haven’t seen it yet, but I haven’t heard any other contender mentioned as often.

  • Music (Original Song): “The Weary Kind,” Crazy Heart. Take it to the bank.

  • Music (Original Score): Probably Up. It won the Globe, and it’s the only one of these films whose score I can even vaguely remember.

  • Costumes: It sounds like a two-movie race between Coco Before Chanel and Bright Star, although I personally wouldn’t mind seeing this go to Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.

  • Make-up: Really weird category this year. Of these three, I’ll guess The Young Victoria edges out Star Trek.

  • Technical Stuff: With the possible exception of Editing and maybe Cinematography (The Hurt Locker), I’m thinking all of this goes to Avatar.

Stuck Inside of Mobile.

“You wake up at Seatac, SFO, LAX. You wake up at O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, BWI. Pacific, mountain, central. Lose an hour, gain an hour. This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time. You wake up at Air Harbor International. If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?”

Sure, constant work-related jetsetting may have hastened Tyler Durden’s descent into borderline psychosis in Fight Club. But, if you need a second opinion, airports are the sea in which George Clooney thrives in Jason Reitman’s well-made but disappointing Up in the Air. I found it hard to pin down exactly why this movie bugged me at first, until I thought more about that memorable rant from Fight Club: “Everywhere I travel, tiny life. Single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pat of butter. The microwave Cordon Bleu hobby kit. Shampoo-conditioner combos, sample-packaged mouthwash, tiny bars of soap. The people I meet on each flight? They’re single-serving friends.

And Up in the Air? It’s a single-serving movie, albeit one you might get in business class — glib, pre-packaged, wrapped in plastic, and, alas, not as tasty, nutritious, or filling as it looks. (After coming to this realization, I discovered Stephanie Zacharek felt much the same: “The picture is brushed with a fine glaze of slickness, a product sealed in a blister pack. It’s like airplane air — it has a packaged freshness that isn’t really fresh at all.“) Sure, from moment-to-moment Up in the Air is engaging enough, but sadly it all adds up to the less than the sum of its parts. (And I have a sinking feeling the Oscar of Crash, Million Dollar Baby, and Slumdog Millionaire will love it.)

Even notwithstanding an 11th hour jag that makes for a more satisfying landing than I originally suspected, there’s a lot of rote here: the obligatory wedding scene, the standard-issue epiphany in the middle of a public speech, the in vino veritas, letting-the-hair-down night among co-workers (set to not-so-Young-anymore MC); the Elliott Smith-scored nostalgic reminiscences of those days gone by, etc. etc. Up in the Air is impressively made and a Quality Production™ through-and-through, but it’s also over-stylized and curiously hollow, and it too often feels like a movie conceived by a marketing department. Imho, it needed more of that ragged, hand-crafted, DIY flair that marked the other two recent Clooney flicks this year, The Men Who Stare at Goats.

To give credit where it’s due, Up in the Air does boast one of the more memorable credit sequences I’ve seen in recent years — lovely aerial shots of the American landscape, set to a funked-up version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” (by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.) But things get gloomy pretty quickly thereafter, with — ripped from the headlines! — a lot of people like you and me finding out that they’ve been given the axe. (Reitman apparently put out ads in Detroit and St. Louis looking for recently laid-off folks — It’s as close to home-spun as Up gets.)

Anyway, holding the handle is Ryan Bingham (Clooney): A professional firer by trade (when he’s not giving motivational speeches on the side), Bingham spends his days breaking employees the bad news so their bosses don’t have to. This job keeps him on the road pretty much constantly…which is fine by Bingham — he’s an Airportman, never happier than when he’s lounging at the American Airways VIP club, or checking into a hotel for a layover, or cruising at 50,000 feet above the heartland. (In his defense, he does live in Omaha — would you want to go home? Also, his travel experiences generally seem a lot less shoddy than almost all of the ones I can remember, but perhaps that’s a function of the miles.) In short, for Bingham transition is bliss: He’s a ship always at sea, never reaching port, and being a million miles from home only means he’s got nine million more to go.

But, naturally, new forces threaten Bingham’s airline Eden. Perhaps most importantly, his squirrelly boss (Jason Bateman) has recently made a hire out of Cornell — Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) — and she has the bright idea to start firing people over the Internets — Thus, no more endless junket. (To which I say, good idea! If I were getting fired either way, I don’t see how having smug-ole-George Clooney hand me a packet in person is going to improve my mood about it.) For another, his little sister (Melanie Lynskey) is getting married (Danny McBride), and their honeymoon plans (and the nagging family responsibilities they confer) make it harder for Bingham to pack light, as is his wont. And confusing the situation further, Bingham meets his female counterpart in Alex (Vera Farmiga), an eye-catching gal who shares a fondness for traveling constantly and in luxury. Does all of this mean it’s time for Ryan to put down some roots and live like the rest of us, or has he had the right idea all along?

In my Best of 2006 list, I said of Reitman’s amiable but botched take on Thank You for Smoking that “[w]hat Smoking needed was the misanthropic jolt and sense of purpose of 2005’s Lord of War, a much more successful muckraking satire…But Smoking, like its protagonist, just wants to be liked, and never truly commits to its agenda.” Well, Up in the Air has the same sense about it. I haven’t read the Walter Kirn novel this is based on, but I’m willing to bet Bingham probably comes across as more of a jerk therein. It sometimes seems that the sharp edges of this tale — “fly the unfriendly skies” and whatnot — have been filed off here. Similarly, I don’t want to give away the ending, which you deserve to experience unspoiled after sitting through the interminable high-school-nostalgia and wedding scenes. But it also feels a bit like Reitman flinched from the material in the end, or even that the finish we get isn’t the one he’d have liked to be building to.

I’m probably being harder on this film than it deserves, but if I was complaining about Cormac McCarthy’s relentless misanthropy just the other day, Up in the Air veered too far for me in the other direction. As in Reitman’s Juno, everyone’s likable and well-meaning perhaps to a fault, even when they’re acting horribly. And, when things go south, well there’s always some sugary-sweet, anesthetizing indie ballad that can soothe the pain and take you to commercial. It’s a sales job Bingham would be proud of.

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