Thursday, December 10, 2009


The OSCAR race is heating up, or rather the various critics groups around the country are heating up as they name their picks, and try to influence the final horse race in the Spring. The Boston Society of Film Critics votes its year-end awards this Sunday. We're talking a room full of critics (me among them) getting hot under the collar arguing about the best films and performances of the year. 

So far, the National Board of Review has weighed in with its best film of the year: UP IN THE AIR, but it won't get my vote. The film stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a professional hatchet man who wings his way around the country firing people; in other words, it's about a man with no roots-- uprooting folks all over the land. He also has a side gig on the lecture circuit extolling the virtues of traveling light. The film is like Milan Kundera's THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING for the 21st century-- except that Clooney makes it look almost bearable.  It's a part he was born to play, and it resonates with his real, off-camera, cool bachelor persona. He's suave and unruffled, even as men old enough to be his father break down in front of him upon learning they've lost their livelihoods. He has just enough heart to keep people from going over the edge.  He never has a word or a hair out of place.

 Bingham meets his feminine foil in transit-- Vera Farmiga is luminous, and languidly sexy in the part. The third leg of this triangle is Bingham's young protegee/replacement?--played by the permanently pursed-lipped Anna Kendrick, in a startlingly fresh performance. She's just popped out of school, thinks she has all the answers, and has worked out a system whereby Ryan Bingham's job could be done via computer--with nary a warm breath between terminator and terminated. The film has captured the zeitgeist: from the packaging of reality and the alienation it breeds, to the disposability of human emotion in an increasingly digitized world. The film is littered with the fake friendliness of flight attendants, and the hospitality suites Ryan calls home. Will Clooney's character crack? Will he feel something missing? Will he enjoy having his wings clipped?

 The film comes up with an answer, but the script takes the cheap way out. At a crucial moment, they cheat. You'll know it when you see it. I felt dirty-- like I'd been had.  It pulls me right out of the film. There's a clue early on, when Anna Kendrick's character arrives at the airport with her luggage wobbling along on those little nasty unworkable wheels. Ryan shows her how the professionals roll, buys her a new freewheeling suitcase and makes her repack. It's just such a lame piece of business--It's as though the girl just emerged from a cornfield. Wasn't there a subtler way to convey her naivete "on the road?" This might have been a Great film. Now it's just OK, with some excellent performances, and one gaping hole where better writing would have kept it aloft.

and stay tuned!

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