April 13, 2010
 

Brokaw Vs. McHale On Clooney's "Up In the Air"

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"There's a new designation that Delta is cranking up in January called Diamond, and it's for people who are so far above the Platinum status that they are going to put in a unique category. I qualify for that!" That quote is not from George Clooney's new movie about a ten million mile flyer who criss-crosses America telling what look like middle- and lower-middle management types that they're history. Rather, it's from former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, being interviewed in the New York Times (12/20/09). "You know," says Huckabee, "if you can't be president, by gosh, get to the highest level of frequent-flier rewards."

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No one has to tell a business reader--especially if you work for some digital startup and have to jam your laptop into coach every time you fly--that Clooney's character is some loony screenwriter's invention. Clooney was superb playing a corporate lawyer fixer whose ad-friendly mantra was "the truth can be adjusted" (it was the film's poster theme line) in "Michael Clayton" several years ago. In that far better drama, his exec's life was falling apart fast. Here the only pesky problems Clooney has while smoothly easing peoples out of their companies is having to train up a stiff, by-the book junior (Anna Kendrick) and fret that his whole person-to-persons operation may one day be replaced by computers. The one and only incident that truly breaks this cool bachelor's stride is when he walks away from a motivational speech he's about to give to a hotel audience and rushes to Chicago to tell the fellow corporate high-flyer (Vera Farmiga) he's been bedding between planes that he really loves her--only to discover she's at home with her (gulp) children and (gulp again) husband. She never told George she had a family. We get the clear impression George never asked.

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"Up In The Air" doesn't have any of the tension or credibility of "Michael Clayton," or, for that matter, advertising or corporate life as we live it today. What it does have--and if you're anywhere near the product placement end of advertising, start taking notes--is an integration of American Airlines, Hilton Hotels, and Hertz Rent-A-Car that practically deserves star billing under George and Vera. Much of the film plays out at American check-in counters, in Hilton rooms and next to Hertz rental lots. These aren't clocked, paid-for appearances, either, where you twiddle your thumbs or wince at having your movie's continuity fractured by product inserts. The marketers donated the locations and facilities in exchange for screen time with George Clooney. That's the perfect matchup of "Up In The Air." It's true, seamless, product-as-hero advertising. It fits in with the pre-roll of endless ads before the endless trailers at your multiplex, that as movie viewers we've accepted like sheep.

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Near the conclusion of this cardboard exercise, Clooney appears to receive the airline's ten-million-mile card (he's only the seventh heavy-duty customer to ever pile up this much mileage) from the plane's captain himself, who joins George in the adjacent seat. The silver-haired gentleman sports a heroic mustache and looks uncannily like a cross between Commander Whitehead and Ted Turner, and he delivers a message of gratitude and appreciation that's the most sincere element in the entire movie. And why not? It's a commercial for American, and it plays to the heart of every business traveler who's ever hit the ground running at 5:00 a.m. Much of "Up In the Air" does--Clooney's choreographed packing routine, the Hilton disco where corporate America drinks, dances and hollers the night away, the drawn and wan and hurt and angry faces of all the employees in all the companies who are surrendering their careers and dreams for a 4-color outsourcing brochure. A few of them curse Clooney out, and one pushes over a chair as he storms out of the office in which George and Anna do their killing.

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"Up In The Air" has received mostly positive (highly positive, too) reviews, and there's Oscar buzz in the air. But if you want to see the ultimate movie experience in corporate downsizing, try and dig up a DVD of a movie that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005 and then promptly disappeared: "The Ax." As in "I got the ax." It's a French film by the famed Greek director Costa-Gavras, and it's based on one of the best novels of the late Donald Westlake, who was for decades America's finest crime writer. "The Ax" centers on a married paper company manager who's let go, and decides to eliminate the competition for his job. He places an ad in a trade magazine with a box number advertising his exact responsibilities, collects the resumes of the seven men around the country who answer the ad with roughly his qualifications, and sets out on a cross-country journey to methodically kill them all. It's a terrific movie, made by one of the world-class directors working today, and four years later has yet to find an American distributor. In an extreme way "The Ax" is about fighting for your job, which Clooney's "Michael Clayton" knew all about and which Clooney's "Up In The Air" hasn't a clue about.

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I disagree!

Kurt does an excellent job at laying out the story and the story's tensions (or lack thereof) which are all too neatly wrapped up in the end. However I really appreciated that at least one commercial-market film these days addressed the primary issue on people's minds today; coming to grips with being disposable workers who are nothing more than numbers to a major corporation. I never knew that de-recruitment firms like the one Clooney was employed by existed, but it made perfect sense that they could. It definitely has a market niche.

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I thought Anna Kendrick was great and the chemistry between Clooney and Vera Farmiga felt real and came across loud and clear. In a movie focusing on cutting people's American Dream hearts out by firing them, the topic itself did not need any more explanation. I'm glad it was watered down. Everyone in the theater seemed to understand. There were lots of gallows humor chuckles. They knew it was a farce. No objects were thrown at Clooney like the ones Bush and Bertolucci received from any of the terminated employees. That would have been believable and a real downer, the last thing you need if you went to the movies to escape from our economic Alcatraz.

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Before 2008, the press pounded us everyday if not every hour about how things were TARP-level tanking. Now here we are 12 months later, with the big boys still cleaning up. In late 2009, the media's slicing and dicing it all, eking out every little spec of good news or injustice to keep viewers glued to the set.

Therefore, do we need to see more? And the bigger question that the studio surely had to ask itself, "Would people pay $10.00 to go and see it?" Clooney or not, the answer is no. So why would we ever need another reality movie to impress upon all of this on us? Ingmar Bergman's time has passed.

The situations created in the movie of being cut loose; ranging from the poor soul getting misty when Clooney absurdly reminded him of his all-but-forgotten wish of becoming a pastry chef, to another terminated person threatening, and then actually jumping off the bridge is more probable than the excitement of becoming a male Betty Crocker, but there's no fun in that. Who would want to go see that on a Saturday night movie date?

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Bottom-line it was a pathetic, yet appreciated black comedy about the financial death and destruction of the American economic middle-class world, which many of us were and/or are worried about losing. It's about what's going on now. Quite a project to undertake, fraught with reasons that any studio could have justified killing with good cause. But it got made.

Hats off to Clooney for trying to bring something to our national nightmare that doesn't try to offer hope. Rather, in the silliness of the plot, to its credit it possesses something less, but more believable, maybe a Clooney version of Clinton's "I feel your pain" that our talented but cool-blooded president hasn't given a speech about yet.

Judging by the film's popularity, I think it's what a lot of people appreciated. At least one of the beautiful people, Clooney in this case, knows what the great unwashed (and unemployed) masses are going through.


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