Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Reitman or the Wrong Man?

In some respects, Jason Reitman is a surprisingly good director. He's made three full-length movies, each of which has been well received by both critics and the box office: Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air. Reitman is only 32, but he's considered one of the best directors working today, especially of his generation. His is the post-Tarantino generation. These directors did not go to film school, or if they did, they may not have needed to. Most of their filmmaking education comes through watching tons and tons of movies. They have grown up with movies in their homes. Thus, the effect is an intuitive ability to make pretty slick films. And if you've spent any time around Agust and I recently, then you'll know that we don't think especially highly of most of these directors. Up in the Air serves as a fine microcosm.

If you don't know, Up in the Air is about a man who gets paid to go into various businesses and fire people. He excels at minimizing collateral damage. He's the prototypical "island unto himself" kind of person. He doesn't really care about other people. He probably doesn't even really care about himself. He cares about reaching 10 million frequent flier miles. Why? He's not even sure why. Now, though, his job looks to be facing big changes due to new, efficient technology. He's going to have to make these changes, or find a new job. Along the way, he meets a woman who seems to be his personality doppelganger. Will this man and woman fall in love and make each other better for it? I'm dying to know.

The man is George Clooney and the woman is Vera Farmiga. 2/3 of my enjoyment came from these actors and their onscreen chemistry. This is a role that Clooney can sleepwalk through - especially since it was supposedly written for him. But Farmiga does great work in an underwritten role to seemingly meet Clooney punch for punch. The last 1/3 of my enjoyment came from one of the film's topics: job loss and coping with economic hardship. It's certainly an relevant topic for today, but one that is also fertile for some cinematic farming. Reitman uses a number of extras who had been recently fired. It was a pretty clever move, and one that paid off for me. However, I could not help but feel that the topic was poorly mined - those extras and their stories were used to in the aid of the main plot, which was shallow in two ways: 1). Clooney's career situation, which does not really mean anything in the face of the problems of the people he ends up firing. I never really empathized with his character. And I think I was supposed to feel sorry for him at some points, but that never happened. 2). And the transformation of Clooney's character is perhaps a little cliched, but that could be merely because I'd recently re-watched Groundhog Day.

The main problem though is that Up in the Air doesn't really have any heart. I got the distinct feeling that Reitman did not have to toil over this movie. He's naturally enough gifted that he does not have to strain with making a film. He gets up, makes a movie, then goes to sleep. He doesn't struggle with screenwriting, or deciding where to place cameras, or whatever else. He's seen enough good movies that he kind of just "knows" how to do stuff. The result is a nice little movie. I've liked all the ones he's made. But I never get the feeling that blood, sweat, and tears went into them. Up in the Air does not do anything unique. Actually, nothing Reitman has done is unique. His movies probably won't punch you in the gut. They won't wrench your heart or mind. They won't show you anything you haven't seen before. They are nice, entertaining movies, but so far they are nothing more. While I like them - they are nothing if not likable - I'll never hold them in the same regard as other films and pieces of art where the creator truly left a piece of him or herself in them. Reitman is certainly capable of this - he just hasn't done it.

I found Up in the Air to be the least of Reitman's three movies, with Juno at the top. It's a decent movie. I would mildly recommend it, but with the caveat that it is another film that does not merit the level of praise it's been getting.

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