Saturday, February 29, 2020
We were never meant to be obsessed with STAR WARS for over 40 years. These things simply happen. We were never meant to remain trapped in our childhoods. Life should take care of that by itself. But the way things played out, two years after sitting in the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard while getting a sinking feeling about forty-five minutes into THE FORCE AWAKENS, I found myself in the exact same seat watching THE LAST JEDI, overcome with a huge sense of relief and, finally, delight. This film knew what it was doing. This was a film with a viewpoint towards providing something unexpected, filled with energy and introspection, locating the soul of whatever STAR WARS is supposed to be and infusing it with a strength towards that mythos which for a long time had felt dormant in my head and giving it something new. Any obsession that I ever had with STAR WARS is largely in the past by now and no complaints but THE LAST JEDI did something no film in that series has done in a long time—it made me thrilled to live in that world again for a few more hours and reminded me of what a joy that was. Of course, two years after that viewing I found myself back at the El Capitan once again for THE RISE OF SKYWALKER although not, I should point out, back in the same seat. Anyway, that film isn’t worth spending much time on no matter what year it is.
What happens in THE FORCE AWAKENS never stays in my mind very long even during the few times I’ve actually seen it but that doesn’t really matter. THE LAST JEDI, of course, begins with the Resistance on the run from the First Order as Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) encounters pushback from General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) over his hotshot tactics while Rey (Daisy Ridley) has located the missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) only to discover he’s not what she expected and isn’t particularly interested in listening to her concerns about what may happen if he doesn’t come back with her to help in the fight. Back at the fleet, Finn (Jon Boyega) meets Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and they team up to hatch a plan in search of a code breaker to allow them to escape from the clutches of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). As for how much this particular plot matters, it’s almost like STAR WARS films rise or fall on how much they really understand how important the basic plot needs to be—not story, that’s something else entirely—and how to maintain the correct balance.
And all discussion of plot aside, it becomes a question of what STAR WARS is. The original trilogy began life as a tribute to old-time serials before turning into its own mythology entirely while the prequels, whatever anyone thinks of them, are at the least somewhat stodgier and less kinetic that have their own odd quirks, largely playing now as lengthy effects demos with an added, more overt political slant which certainly helps them remain interesting these days. For all the qualities those films have or are lacking at the very least they still play as experimental and attempting something new. The post-George Lucas trilogy takes an approach of streamlining that mythos to give the people what they apparently want and in rebooting the franchise THE FORCE AWAKENS discards all attempts at experimentation with pretty much zero interest in any new cinematic ideas at all. Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Academy Award nominee for the screenplay of KNIVES OUT), THE LAST JEDI, meanwhile, forces the hand on this bluff and quickly turns itself into an exploration of that approach to the modern myth, serving as a commentary on what the saga has come to represent in the world we live in filtered through characters who have mattered to us longer than we remember. The mystery of Luke Skywalker in the previous film played like it was stalling to avoid dealing with the character in any way at all, an approach that this film winds up embracing in order to use his status as Generation X icon to throw into question what the fight was really all about in the first place.
To be honest, I never wondered much about what happened to Luke Skywalker. I barely thought about whether there would ever be more sequels anyway. On the one hand, the concept of his living a totally drab, sexless life as essentially a Jedi samurai monk wandering the galaxy couldn’t sound any duller. So if his story was going to somehow continue, what we see here makes as much sense as anything, taking the characterization beyond the stasis he remained in for pretty much all of RETURN OF THE JEDI and still connecting him with what’s come before. At his most interesting, Luke was never the calm centered presence of Obi Wan Kenobi so having him serve as that figure here would have diminished the role which in some ways plays a reminder of all those things Luke still had to learn, that he never learned through the snowballing plot points of his own trilogy and, without total understanding, leading to his ultimate moment of weakness gradually revealed here in opposing flashbacks. He doesn’t have all the answers and never did in the first place which keeps his character relevant in the narrative beyond standard teacher-student dichotomy. It’s why tossing that light saber, or “laser sword”, over his shoulder which at first seemed like something out of an MTV Movie Awards sketch immediately caused me to perk up, realizing this film would be something different in directly confronting expectations and immediately questioned what was expected of Luke after all this time. Rey, meanwhile, represents the future looking to the past for answers without knowing why, searching for who she is with only a vague awareness of what this myth ever was and still needing to learn about it for herself. She’s looking for the ultimate answer to the truth behind the truth, the way she asks Luke what the Force is to try to understand and what it all means, what it can possibly mean, whatever we’ve been told in the past.
And that’s the thing. If there isn’t an attitude towards all this to help make the film live and breathe creatively in the now then it just becomes empty homage, a reminder of how nice it was to be ten years old and I can’t think of anything more depressing. In some ways Rian Johnson’s take on the universe in THE LAST JEDI is comparable to what Nicholas Meyer did with directing STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN as if to ask questions like, “What is this place? How does this all work? Who are these people?” infusing the answers with a sense of wit along with a snap to the dialogue in every scene, starting early on with the hotshot tactics that Poe takes near the beginning to get the First Order’s attention or the approach taken by Vice Admiral Holdo played by Laura Dern (Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actress in MARRIAGE STORY) in dealing with him later on, no interest in pretending she has to have patience for him. The growing connection between Rey and Kylo offers added depth as well as if trying to figure out why they’re good and bad guys in the first place but it also comes down to Rey’s examination of her own self to figure out who she isn’t and never was, providing an open book towards whatever she could become in the future. Facing an infinity of her own reflection in the equivalent scene to what Luke once encountered long ago in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK makes sense since the entire film plays as sort of that film in reverse or maybe turned inside out but with its own conclusions, so even the unexpected plays out in an unexpected way but also at times much more simple than we could have ever realized. Even the presumably all-powerful Snoke, Palpatine redux but much more intriguing than in the previous film, is really just a ranting old man with little else to explain him since none of that matters, nothing more and maybe even less.
The confidence of Johnson’s direction is always in evidence, bringing a true sense of craft along with a sense of exhilaration and energy to that epic old movie feeling as well as an extra kick to the space battles which bring the right sort of punchy quality to scenes onboard the First Order ships and the clean style of the way each of them gets laid out. No matter how much is going on through all the crosscutting there’s always a balance maintained so the film doesn’t rush, all the better to pause for some fresh green milk, and the pacing of what is the longest STAR WARS film ever is always measured thanks to editor Bob Ducsay, never overly hyper and playing as totally confident. Even if a few minutes could be cut, that pacing lets the film breathe and exist inside of scenes, interested in more than just the action beats and whatever needs to move the plot forward. Like all good directors, Johnson is interested in exploring the environment that the film is set in and he loves those moments where we can feel the weight of all that has happened and, enriched by cinematographer Steve Yedlin, shots that quietly explore how the events affect the characters and their understanding, the way Luke gets Rey to understand how the Force works visualizing the very concept for the first time ever in sort of the STAR WARS version of THE TREE OF LIFE and the unavoidable darkness it leads to. The film is always enriched by those moments, the simple character beats of Rey feeling the rain as it drips down outside the Millennium Falcon or Leia standing silently outside the rebel base on Crait, the weight of all these years on her, waiting for whatever’s going to come. For once it’s a STAR WARS film that wants to explore the feel of all those worlds it takes place in beyond whatever the basic ecosystem of a planet is and how all this affects the balance of the Force as well.
That approach brings a sense of richness to every scene and even the clutter of the Canto Bight section has a purpose towards lending clarity to the universe in general, the casino playing as an update of the original cantina scene filtered through all the CASABLANCA nods, of course, but also containing another kind of wretched hive than we’ve seen before as if to answer what’s been going on with all the rich people in this galaxy since the prequels. Rose Tico sees right through that but it also helps bring out who the unformed Finn is becoming, all impulse and still learning, not yet understanding what sacrifice really is. In its commentary on how much the series seems to take for granted that these wars are going to go on endlessly it’s further challenged by Benicio Del Toro’s rogue code breaker (his best line: “Blip bloppity bloop.”), kind of a Han/Lando mashup crossed with his USUAL SUSPECTS character, tossed in with the actor playing it like he’s both unimpressed by all these massive sets yet is more overjoyed at sharing the frame with BB-8 than anyone else in the film but still with an unpredictability of the rare person in one of these movies that never really cares who the good guys are after all.
Those challenges to what’s come before blend perfectly with Rian Johnson’s filmmaking prowess which always finds a way to approach a scene to give it additional power with a clear sense of composition to make every shot matter, even providing continuity to the degree of homage not seen in these films since what Lucas did as director in 1977 from the BLACK NARCISSUS vibe found in the lived-in feel of the island of Ach-To with the fish nun caretakers to the unending red of Snoke’s chamber that seems ready to stage a darker version of Marilyn Monroe’s famous “Diamonds are a Girls’ Best Friend” number from GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES so whether intentionally or not it becomes its own show stopping musical number with spectacularly thrilling choreography in this light saber duel staged just as precisely as the finest Jack Cole number imaginable. The overt homage to Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT in the layout on the main First Order ship sadly wound up in the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray but the floating camera of the establishing Canto Bight casino shot lifted directly from WINGS goes perfectly with the dynamic feel just as right as the line partly cribbed from THE WILD BUNCH at one point later on because of course that should be in there. These elements are in some ways incidental but still integral to the richness of the world and overall sense of tradition of how these films were always meant to be paying tribute to the past, the things that happened a long time ago which mattered more than anything to the person making the film and affected the world of the film they were making down to the bones. And, as I’m not the first person to point out, this is the only STAR WARS film to feature the John Williams theme from THE LONG GOODBYE, however briefly, which naturally means that if this isn’t the best STAR WARS film it comes pretty close.
But more than that it’s the characters searching for who they are within, what is found under Kylo’s mask that he destroys early on, Rey and her identity, Luke and his understanding of himself, just as Johnson even explored later on in KNIVES OUT and how much that film’s main character realizes that in spite of everything she is in fact a ‘good person’. Part of that search within in THE LAST JEDI is found in the recurring imagery of hands reaching for a connection, reaching for the Force, searching for those answers that aren’t coming, yearning for a way to understand, the connection between Rey and Kylo that gets broken by Luke before he’s able to admit the truth of what led to this. And it extends to how the film honors the memory of Carrie Fisher ever before she died so for once the character of Leia really does feel like an extension of what we think of when we think of Carrie Fisher, worn down but her humanity and flippancy never leaving her. The way the film honors Fisher even before she died is found in every moment we get of her here, culminating in what feels like the first ever cinematic moment to actually make genuine use of the character’s famous theme forever alters how we’re going to see this, how much she knows her time is passing but still with a final understanding that what she’s accomplished will somehow continue on.
All this connects to how the film feels about STAR WARS history in general, confronting and embracing that all at once, even down to the way it engages with the prequels and what happened in them as Luke explains what separates the concept of the Force from the Jedi and even now I get a rush out of hearing Mark Hamill say the name ‘Darth Sidious’ to acknowledge a past we remember that he didn’t witness. And whatever Rian Johnson actually feels about THE FORCE AWAKENS, his film wisely not only doesn’t ignore certain elements introduced there (Snoke, Phasma, etc.), it also confronts and subverts them, improves them and in the end renders each of those elements irrelevant as well as showing why they should be irrelevant in its pursuit of loftier thematic goals. The film’s view of Kylo is complex but the evil around him is appropriately hollow so the pastiness seen on the face of the likes of Domhall Gleeson’s General Hux is treated with all the contempt that he deserves no matter who’s dishing it out. But in going further back to the past, it’s the surprise introduction of Yoda, of course once again voiced by Frank Oz, and what it contains that turns into the most emotional moment of the film for me, a reminder that we all have our soft spots during certain moments that come out of nowhere in these films. What that Jedi says about failure feels like the greatest lesson for Luke ever, the sort of lesson that makes it a film perfect for this moment. It’s very much a film about failure and the lessons that come from it, the sort of failure each of these characters encounters throughout to help you understand the reason you’re fighting in the first place and why you need to keep on doing it. Failure is a hell of a thing to live with each day, a reminder which meant something in 2017 just as it means something now. Within that becomes finding that love of what we’re fighting for and we love about it. What we love about what it might be. And what we might have in ourselves to move forward.
In a way, THE LAST JEDI is a middle film in a trilogy that is itself about finding that middle ground, just as important as the balance to the Force that’s always being talked about and the search for hope that the characters find themselves in. It’s the bravura filmmaking during the best moments in this series which always mean more than the plot, when all the elements manage to coalesce into pure cinema maybe especially during the showstopper of Holdo’s final action but also when the glorious John Williams music kicks in for the climax going full throttle and the Porgs that I love so much, who I assume have finally been accepted by Chewbacca, go crazy so during those moments all that is required is to be caught up in the coolness and pure joy of it all. Part of it is also Luke at the end, seen in full spaghetti western close-up, discovering his own truth as the symbol he finally realizes he needs to be and only he knows how to be. So does Rey using the force to lift those rocks at the end as she finally understands the complexity of what she can do in simple terms, taking the lessons of the past and translating them for herself. It’s a movie that wants to find the light in the darkness that the middle chapter is expected to be, the way Rose finds joy in the Fathiers on Canto Bight in a way that no one has ever reacted to anything in this universe before just as the very uncomplicated Poe Dameron spends the film in the middle of an increasingly complicated situation. It’s Holdo who reminds him about what hope means but it’s not until the end when he repeats what her determination to serve as a spark to light the fire of the rebellion that he can understand the film’s own argument against nihilism, that it’s not about the crazy plans and cool sacrifice that Finn almost makes for nothing but what can really be done to make things better to defeat the darkness. Unlike the increasing gloom of most blockbusters (and would be blockbusters) of the past decade, many of which I feel such a growing emotional distance from, this is a film that feels alive and vibrant and, once its own cynicism has been addressed, even optimistic about what its world can be, about what STAR WARS can be, and to make the past itself remember why that mattered. It’s beautiful.
Because if the argument could be made that great films are either puzzles or dreams, that also explains how STAR WARS can work at its best. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is definitely a dream in how little it makes any rational sense and yet still works flawlessly in all its glory and emotion, just as you could argue that a failing of the prequels is that they each get caught in some sort of middle ground between the two. THE FORCE AWAKENS, not at all a great film, never feels like it’s about more than its own puzzle which means there’s nothing particularly to explore on repeat viewings. THE LAST JEDI, a STAR WARS film very much about the interpretation of STAR WARS and what we imagine it to be gloriously brings the dream back with possibilities of how we still can prove what we have. Of what the future can hold. Because you don’t let the past die, at least not completely. You grow from the past and you have to, because if you don’t then there’s just a void as empty as Kylo Ren’s hands are near the end, forever lacking any knowledge or understanding. The myth only means something if you directly confront it, using that power to turn it into something more before moving on. A few years later, after everything that’s happened in our own world to make this struggle seem all the more resonant, it’s a film that feels even richer than it has yet.
In scene after scene it feels like the actors are energized by the material in Johnson’s script and there’s always an extra kick in the air between them in scenes as they face off against each other. Mark Hamill is phenomenal, giving this taking this return to the character a power I didn’t see coming as he plays every moment with an air of regret that weighs upon the gift he’ll always have no matter what, all the stories of what led him here found in his eyes and the cumulative effect is a performance that is fearless. Carrie Fisher, in what is basically her final performance, brings an unexpectedly soulful quality missing from the previous film along with a resigned sadness while keeping the humor which is so much about the character and what we want to remember about the actress. Daisy Ridley is especially effective with the growing conflict within what she faces along with the joy that sometimes shines through while Adam Driver is flawless at capturing Kylo’s arrogance and ultimate confusion, growing increasingly unclear which side he should be on, along with the determination of Oscar Isaac and Jon Boyega with how locked in they are in their storylines along with the sense of true goodness and light that Kelly Marie Tran brings to this world. The quiet determination of Laura Dern also pays off with a bang, along with the ball that Benicio Del Toro is having every moment he’s around and Andy Serkis actually gets me interested in Snoke in this film, at least for those few minutes where it’s needed. Even the small roles pop, whether Ngo Thanh Van who is nearly silent as Rose’s sister Paige Tico or Amanda Lawrence as Commander D’Acy and the cumulative effect of these moments from the actors gives it all a humanistic quality unlike any other STAR WARS film ever seen.
Not long ago I was thinking about how the last thing Luke says to Kylo Ren in this film is “See you around, kid,” making me think that in the next film he might return as a Force ghost unlike any we’d seen before only to have him finally show up basically redoing Obi-Wan Kenobi in RETURN OF THE JEDI spouting exposition while sitting on a log and oh god why am I still going on about all this. But that’s the thing with obsession. It’s very possible that I’ll never find myself back in the El Capitan again seeing another one of these movies, just as I’m aware that this may be the final thing I ever write about STAR WARS in any form but in the best noir tradition we keep getting pulled back, like it or not so I can’t say for sure. And for all the debate over what STAR WARS ‘is’ maybe by now it’s become about the obsessions of our own past as much as anything and how it all means we have to look back, like it or not. Recalling George Lucas’ own penchant for pure cinema, STAR WARS films generally shouldn’t have any sort of last line so in its final shots THE LAST JEDI shows us a seemingly random boy who will one day have his own adventures that we’ll likely never see. No dialogue is needed to tell us this but that future is clearly destined, just as it’s destined for these stories to continue, here presented in a simple, elegant image of hope. What that image means, what it should mean, what it may always mean. Feel free to take that as an ending and maybe the final piece of STAR WARS related media I’ll ever need to pay attention to, since as it’s turned out, what followed this film wasn’t particularly interesting in any way. So let someone else have those adventures, if they even want to. It’s possible to stay in the same place forever, not moving forward and never truly finding your place in the world. That very idea has always been at the heart of STAR WARS, certainly the George Lucas version of it but maybe this film as well, the very human fear of not wanting to let go and of what the future may hold if you do. It was what Anakin Skywalker didn’t want to lose, what Luke Skywalker was afraid he might learn, what Rey can’t seem to admit to herself. But you can’t stay in the same place forever. It’s the very thing Luke was trying to avoid to begin with, a long time ago. Even then he knew that sometimes you simply have to move on.
Tuesday, February 18, 2020
Some anniversaries only matter to you and no one else which is just the way it is. But I recently passed the ten year mark of being laid off from a certain showbiz-related news program where I had worked for several years, which was a pretty good job all things considered, and I can’t help but think about it for a few minutes. The day I was let loose from there back into the world remains as vivid now as it was then and my life has never really been the same since. That’s going to happen. The people I know now are different and my world is different which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing. And, yes, it’s weird that I’m thinking about it after all this time but anniversaries have a way of doing that to you, so I’ll get over it soon enough. Anyway, the day this happened in December 2009 was exactly one week after seeing Jason Reitman’s UP IN THE AIR on opening day, a film about the very thing I would soon be going through, I just didn’t know it at the time. My feelings about UP IN THE AIR have always been somewhat conflicted as a result since, after all, what did Jason Reitman and George Clooney have to tell me about being unemployed? About what that actually felt like? Ten years later, the movie still has an undeniable slickness that makes me keep it on cable in the background but I still feel like I’m watching from a distance as if being reminded how this film is only ever going to care so much. Removed from the feeling that it’s trying to say something about the-time-we’re-living-in is an equal sense that the film never wants to stray too far from first class and spend all that much time worrying about what it’s never going to be able to change.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), expert corporate downsizer for employment consulting firm CRC, spends much of his life flying one from one city to another with the simple job of firing people. Along with a sideline gig as a motivational speaker, he is forever in love with his first class lifestyle of impermanence maintaining almost zero attachments and never having to stay in one place for long, even meeting a businesswoman named Alex (Vera Farmiga) with a similar attraction to life out there on the road between places. But when he’s called back to his home office in Omaha, Ryan is faced with the possibility of it all going away due to the arrival of Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young and ambitious new employee at the firm with the goal of making all business done remotely over video links, completely removing any need for Ryan to travel. With boss Craig (Jason Bateman) still figuring out how to proceed, Ryan is sent back on the road with Natalie so she can learn about what he does and what their job really entails. They are soon met by Alex but this new relationship along with an impending family wedding causes Ryan to finally question everything he’s become for the very first time.
Revisiting UP IN THE AIR a decade later, far removed from its status as an Oscar contender (six nominations, zero wins), the film plays as a smooth ride with a tight script and solid role for George Clooney, even if it never seems willing to stare into the pit of the moment the way the great MICHAEL CLAYTON featuring the actor did two years earlier. With a screenplay by Reitman and Sheldon Turner based on the novel by Walter Kirn, more than anything UP IN THE AIR feels like what began life as a satire on the coldblooded nature displayed by corporate America as people are tossed out that was eventually smoothed over to better relate directly to the present moment in a more hopefully empathic way. The remnants of the darker approach still hang in the air, the briefly seen Zach Galifanakis getting fired introduced for comic effect which takes a shift as we glimpse his actual pain and the plot point of the business plan to fire people via what we now commonly think of as Skype serves as a reminder of the ruthlessness that’s always going to be involved no matter what the business entails. Playing a little now as a time capsule of the hope of early Obama and Blackberries everywhere, the film’s well-publicized gimmick of using actual victims of such cutbacks to respond to their firings lends the snappy patter a jolt of verisimilitude with the genuine hurt and anger coming through. But looking at it now the conceit feels slightly undercut when at one point the film removes the documentary element to have it actually cut to the lead actors, turning the pain of real people into reverse shots for George Clooney and Anna Kendrick to react to, even if the genuine pain is still felt through their eyes in these moments.
At the very least it’s the characters that are the film’s greatest strength with plotting loose enough that it’s easy to miss exactly why Natalie travels with Ryan in the first place, which is fine, and the way it dispenses with that plot for long stretches allows the film to breathe as it focuses on them, with sequences like the tech conference party during a stay in Miami charmingly playing a little like a memory recalled later on with a wistful fondness. But there’s maybe too much of a wannabe Alexander Payne vibe to the approach both on the surface (Omaha home base, Rolfe Kent score) and down below (character examination during a long trip where someone is confronted with certain truths about their life) with what feels like a sort of meta commentary on what we presume to be the secret life of George Clooney. Along with a dose of 70s-style naturalism that never feels entirely lived in, the smoothly laid out plot schematics always feel a little overly calculated when they have to come into play, as if the characters are shifted around on the chess board because the movie tells them to as opposed to simply being.
It’s the look at Ryan Bingham’s daily rituals while traveling that serves as part of the approach, the calming reverse of Edward Norton’s outlook on the lifestyle in FIGHT CLUB from ten years earlier, so the emphasis is really on the way he lives, one hotel to the next, one airport to the next, the rapid fire montages of his travels appropriately seeming out of a commercial. The idea of what this job is doing to the insides of the people in this industry that’s designed to thrive in misery is left mostly unexamined, the ‘can sir’ one flight attendant asks him about in a brief misunderstanding left hanging. His life never lingers in the moment so the film never does, at least not enough, the ‘What’s in your Backpack?’ motivational speech aimed at getting rid of all the dead weight in your life is used as the partial framing device to all this, an extension of the speech he falls back on during firings to convince people that this is a sort of rebirth. All he does is send them out into limbo which, after all, is where he’s happiest, so why shouldn’t they be, with nothing but the totem like device of those packets they hand out to everyone being let go which I suspect will do them little good at all beyond giving them the strength to actually walk out of that room to face the inevitable.
Maybe it’s fitting that there’s a hollow quality to all this slickness in the world Ryan embraces, gladly residing in that limbo with the closest thing he has to a friend a fuck buddy who’s moved on so bonding with Alex during their meet cute over a mutual love of how synthetic the lifestyle is and the brief nudity courtesy of a body double for Vera Farmiga plays as a superfluous element which feels cheap and artificial but maybe that’s part of the point. Even when we go with Ryan to the more genuine world of his family life back in snowy Wisconsin it still feels a little manufactured as if the handheld modesty on display is what equals reality. As it is, one of the most natural moments in the entire film becomes the awkward silence between Ryan and his sisters, siblings that have nothing to say to each other beyond the awkward smiles, which suddenly feels like it takes take place in a world that is completely recognizable.
As much as the emphasis on showing life out on the road and those establishing gods eye view of all the cities flown into, Reitman’s direction is often best when he cuts out the talk so at times there’s the feeling the film knew how to slice certain scenes down to the essentials and play out moments through the eyes so the film is ok with spending moments with the characters in those silences, whether a shot of Kendrick sitting in a room of empty chairs that were likely once occupied by people no longer working there or the way Clooney’s eyes read at the possibility of anything at all messing with his enjoyment up there. The lengthy conversation between the three leads after Natalie is dumped by her boyfriend via text also feels like it genuinely comes out of the characters and plays as totally relaxed even as it goes for a few obvious laughs, each of them letting their veils drop as much as they’re willing to. “Life can underwhelm you that way,” Farmiga’s Alex tells Natalie at one point and it’s one of the better lines in a film that ultimately is about people who try to keep that from happening but some of them know a little bit more about dealing with that than others, the way Ryan Bingham treats his job with seriousness—the film isn’t that callous about its subject—but he also wants to keep away from the real world for as long as he can.
The bitterness towards it all felt more palpable a few years later in Reitman’s YOUNG ADULT, likely thanks to that script by Diablo Cody and the way UP IN THE AIR discards the shocking fate of one victim feels like a reminder that some people are mere collateral damage who can’t be saved, not in the midst of all this cruelty. The way Natalie reduces one older guy the size of a linebacker to tears as he’s fired via the video linkup makes her pat words of encouragement ring all the more hollow, the workflow of downsizing she focuses on morphing into actual pain she has no idea what to do with. The way Ryan has to finally use his motivational skills for the exact opposite reasons he’s gotten used to, to talk someone into not letting go for once becomes his own harsh lesson of a certain truth that he always refused to grasp for himself. The moral of UP IN THE AIR seems to be not about knowing what you want but realizing what you’re missing out on, the pitfalls of what it is to be a ‘human parentheses’ as Ryan finally realizes he is. You have to be somewhere in this world after all. In the end, if you’re everywhere, you’re nowhere.
The film is still a smooth ride although maybe it needed to be more than that, maybe we needed to feel the uncertainty Ryan finally grasps a little more in the end, the stylized shot of Natalie moving away from him late in the film serving as a reminder of a connection he’ll never be able to hold onto. Granted, most people only change so much by the time they get to a certain age and when he lets go of his suitcase at the end it feels like a tiny, significant step, a realization of someone who never realized how trapped he really was in all that freedom and what it actually meant. But in being about someone who realizes what he never had, this also means it’s never about what he lost. This never becomes someone who chooses to quit his job or refuse to fire someone since that wouldn’t have accomplished anything and even if the character does walk out on his big motivational speaking engagement, another one of those plot points that feels a little too calculated, it’s not like he gives up anything so instead of a Billy Wilder ending the movie gives Ryan Bingham more of a Hal Ashby ending, another version of Warren Beatty’s George Roundy at the end of SHAMPOO as he realizes what he’s missing a little too late. Looking at the film now as a flashback of The Way Things Were in 2009, or in the early months of 2010 when it’s set, it becomes clear how everything has gotten meaner this many years later and by now there’s no end in sight. To this film, firings and layoffs are a natural force, like the weather. I guess the cruelty is too. The distance Ryan and his company keeps is almost troubling and feels more troubling now in a world that has only gotten more willing to discard you when that time comes. If anything, the film is a reminder that it’s nice up there in first class, I say that from experience. Of course, eventually you have to leave. That’s where the world is. That’s where your home needs to be.
It’s now been several years since George Clooney last appeared onscreen in a feature film so it’s hard not to think we’re missing a few films he might have gotten made that could have at least aspired to what this does, the sort of film he was striving to make—at times with more success than others—during the peak of his star power. I miss the guy. Even if you can sense when he knows exactly how to play certain moments to get the audience on his side he’s always totally relaxed and confident here which helps make the vulnerability that finally emerges seem totally real. The way he holds himself onscreen means no one, no one, can come close to saying an exasperated, “Oh, fuck,” the way he does and damn it, he’s really, really good. Vera Farmiga projects just as much confidence in her own way, offering a cool authority that plays well off Clooney during their initial flirtation and especially when it becomes clear how much more assured of her situation she really is while Anna Kendrick is especially strong, the chipper quality of her line readings displaying her eagerness that cut through with moments where it feels like what’s going on is told through her eyes, truly seeing what she’s chosen to be a part of. The strong supporting cast also includes Jason Bateman as Clooney’s boss bringing a callous pragmatism to what he’s in charge of, a particularly effective Melanie Lynskey who is so good in projecting reams of unspoken feelings about the brother she barely knows during her few minutes onscreen, Danny McBride with a vulnerability unlike any of his other roles, Jason Reitman regular J.K. Simmons nailing his one scene getting fired and Amy Morton who brings a grounded determination to her role as the sister who won’t let Ryan get away with any excuses for even a moment.
Even if it seemed like a lot of things were collapsing during the last few years of the aughts, looking back on it now it becomes clear that we didn’t know how good we had it. The day after I got laid off in December 2009, during a very rainy weekend, I got a call from a certain friend of mine who asked me to meet her at the House of Pies where over coffee she gave me her own version of Ryan Bingham’s “Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world…” speech. Only since it wasn’t her job it was for the right reasons. So what she said helped, it really did, and it isn’t much of a stretch to say that I may not still be writing this if not for what she did that day. The eventual falling out a number of years later turned out to be more painful than losing a job ever could be, especially one where I had to fake an interest in the Kardashians. And maybe I still don’t quite know where the last ten years have led me to. I don’t know where I am now. I only know that there are people who come into your life and leave a mark which never fully goes away, something I still don’t quite know what to do with. Which, no matter how aware I am of my own ambivalence towards it, is of course a reminder of what this film about, the things those real people who have been laid off say near the end about what really matters in the grand scheme of your life. That you have those people close to you which, in its way, can be its own kind of pain. And in between all that is the luxury of being up there, where you really want to be, where you like to think you’re safe, at least for as long as they let you stay.