MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Up in the Air, Everybody’s Fine and Old Dogs

Up in the Air (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Jason Reitman, 2009

In Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, which I rather liked, George Clooney plays a prime/perfecto Clooney role: Ryan Bingham, a nice-seeming, glamorous looking guy with a highly remunerated, very nasty job. Ryan is a severance expert, a corporate gun-for-hire, who flies around the country (so often he’s near a 10 million mile Frequent Flyer award), firing employees whom their bosses are too gutless to face and fire themselves.So Up in the Air becomes, in part, a movie about how far some of our corporate world is falling to pieces today — and also about the good looks and meaner reality of the gleaming, isolated lives of upper-class people still unaffected by the fray: the ones who hire and fire, or are paid to, like Ryan. It’s inevitably, a political subject, and it’s on the political level, that this movie is least satisfying, with its cards played too close to the vest.

But as an intelligent romantic comedy, it’s one of the best around — mostly thanks to Clooney and costar Vera Farmiga and their great, fizzing chemistry onscreen together. And thanks also to the double edge of Clooney’s keen portrayal of a corporate rub-out man.

What’s this guy’s game? He’s a master of smooth exits. Granting these unfortunate, now ex-employees a few minutes of his highly personable, superficially empathetic, totally programmed time, Ryan here does his stuff. He dispenses a little snappy patter, flashes his softly bemused half-smile, drops an aphorism or two, and ushers them out of their old lives and into their possibly bleak new ones, with panache. And economy.

Like the hangman’s shift, it’s an awful gig. (Some of his “subjects” threaten suicide. Some may mean it.) But this professional kick-you-out-the-door guy and Grinning Reaper does it with style, class and what he would consider “heart.” He hands the sometimes stricken-looking victims a glossy reorientation packet, gives them what seems a sympathetic gaze (it’s been practiced enough), and tries, it seems, to cushion the blow with the con that this is only another, possibly wonderful new opportunity.

The kicker here is that, in the new post-Bush, unemployment-ravaged America, even the Ryan Binghams may become expendable. And that’s what seems to be happening when Ryan’s boss and ”friend” Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) — an affable, selfish corporate creep, and, as played by Bateman, one of the most expertly realized slimy characters I’ve seen on screen recently — tells Ryan he’s hired a hotshot (i.e.: younger and cheaper) new efficiency expert named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), to streamline the operation.

Natalie’s brainstorm: to fire all these hapless people by remote control from other cities, other rooms, by video-conferencing — an innovation that may cost Ryan his job, and would certainly end his country-hopping “up in the air” life-style. That style is really something. (A major attraction of the movie, in fact.) Though based in Omaha, Nebraska, which was Johnny Carson‘s and Henry Fonda’s bedrock American hometown, Ryan spends his time soaring business class in the skies from coast to coast, city to city, luxury hotel to luxury hotel, eating rich and playing hard and cracking wise and having quick, slick and casual affairs with fellow savvy travelers like Alex Goran (Farmiga, as excellent as the others).

Alex, whose quick-witted sexual byplay with Ryan has the erotic lilt and sting of a scene with Bogart and Bacall, or Hepburn and Tracy, is a canny corporate babe whom Ryan, in what seems to be a humanizing touch, woos throughout the movie, finally deciding whether to invite her to the wedding of his little sister Julia (Melanie Lynskey) in Wisconsin. A conventional escape hatch? The usual “Apartment”-style movie reclamation, with a first-class leading lady waiting redemptively to take up the slack? You may have lost your job, but you won Shirley MacLaine or Vera Farmiga?

Perhaps. Good trade. But will he take it? And does Ryan, for all his sense of humor and charm, deserve our sympathy just for facing the same kind of termination anxiety through which he’s put so many others — even if he did try to be sort of a nice guy and help them feel a little better while shoving them off the cliff?

It’s a smartly-written part, cleverly scripted by writer-director Jason Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner from Walter Kirn’s novel. And it fits Clooney like a slick leather glove — in much the way that Cary Grant‘s best romantic comedy roles (in say, The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday or North by Northwest) or Paul Newman‘s best sexy heel roles (in Hud, Sweet Bird of Youth or The Hustler) fit them. Playing Ryan — a comic sexy heel, a charmer with a flaw — lets Clooney call up most of his ample reserves of casual sexiness, glib charm and social-political cunning.

So he does. Clooney, like Grant or Newman did, can play manipulative or even somewhat mean characters, and stay likable (always as actor, if not as character). He can expose his movie guys’ insincerity or sneakiness and still make us enjoy them, seducing movie characters and audiences alike with a mix of playfulness, witty candor and ironical edge. And that’s what Clooney does here. His Ryan shows how in corporate America, charm can be a weapon, and, though less powerfully, how flying above all the misery and loss below, doesn’t stop it from existing.

I was not a particular fan of Reitman’s Juno, and I missed his Thank You for Smoking. But it’s clear from both Juno and Up in the Air that he’s sharp on dialogue and character, and very good with actors. These are the kind of smart comedies we need right now. And, even if I don‘t always totally like the way things play out for Reitman, Up in the Air has some of the flashing verbal ingenuity the classic Hollywood romantic comedies had, and that movies by Alexander Payne or Woody Allen still have today. And Up in the Air also has good characters and scenes that live.

Something about the ending though, dissatisfied me. There are sexual tensions between Ryan and Natalie that are ripe with prime comic possibilities, and that the movie tends to ignore, perhaps out of political correctness. Mistake.

And there are political tensions that lie untapped too. Natalie and Craig struck me as loyal Republicans, and Ryan as a wavering one, Alex as a possible independent or Democrat. Am I wrong? Why shouldn’t it be more obvious? Why don’t these people, flying above the fray, talk about the kind of things these characters would almost certainly be gabbing about: arguing politics or movies or sports, in between couplings and firings? Why not open them up more? It’s the lack of social or cultural chatter, something the Golden Age comedies often had, but missing in many of our “serious” movies, that make them seem so shallow. And that made Woody Allen’s movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s seem so hip.

Up in the Air — which looks and sounds great — also balances comedy and drama. But there’s still probably not enough drama, especially for the mixed light-and-dark resolution Reitman wants here. I think this movie needs even more time with Ryan’s victims and their lives, who sometimes make an impression but are given too short shrift. Some poor, fired husband, wife, father or mother should pour out their soul even more than what we see here. (There’s a shocker at the end, but it isn’t prepared for enough.)

Pain. Loss. The careless rich who diddle with the economy, and who diddle with our lives and futures, while diddling each other. Foxland. The cliffs we’re all hanging on. The social fabric that hangs by a thread. The sex that gives brief respite. The families for which we yearn. That’s part of the peek at real problems that gives the best comedy of “Up in the Air” a sharp edge, and that also helps define who Ryan is, and what he’s become. And what a lot of corporate America has become too. Clooney nails this character, even if Up in the Air doesn’t always fully exploit the milieu. It’s a fly-over movie that, at its best, is keen comedy for people who yearn to see what’s going on both above and below their frequent flights.


Everybody’s Fine (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Kirk Jones, 2009

Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1990 Italian film Everybody’s Fine (Stanno Tutti Bene) was an effective sentimental journey, with Marcello Mastroianni radiating paternal sweetness and bruised ideals as an elderly father who travels from Sicily and all over Italy, to try to rejoin his five children. In the hands of Kirk Jones, who made the funny lottery fraud comedy Waking Ned Devine, this sad tale has become a maudlin trip by retired telephone wire man Robert De Niro (who‘s always good, no matter what the provocation) trying, often in vain, to rejoin his four kids, including a vanished painter, as well as Kate Beckinsale the rich advertising gal, Sam Rockwell the lazy classical music orchestra tympanist, and Drew Barrymore the bouncy Vegas dancer. “Isn’t life disappointing?” wondered the elderly parents of another group of evasive children in Yasujiro Ozu’s great Japanese family drama Tokyo Story.

No, but this movie is.


Old Dogs (One Star)
U.S.; Walt Becker, 2009

Robin Williams and John Travolta, two actors I’ve often liked, have all their good scenes under the opening titles in Old Dogs — in a series of archive photos that shows the lifelong friendship of their “Odd Couple-ish” characters, nervous Charlie and stud Dan, as they grow up from tots to sports entrepreneurs,.

Unfortunately, the movie then started cranking up its story. Inevitably, it got worse. Travolta and Williams had to start reading their lines, or improvising, or reading teleprompters, or being possessed by Satan, or whatever caused them to say aloud some of the worst damned dialogue in the worst damned, dumbest scenes this side of My Mother, the Car or the Vegas night club acts of Barney the Dinosaur and his Dino-Mites.

Unhappily, we also got the plot (courtesy of writers David Diamond and David Weissman) about Dan and Charlie having to baby-sit Charlie‘s long-lost children from ex-wife Vicki (played by Travolta wife Kelly Preston), while engineering a Japanese sports coup, after Vicki’s best friend Jenna (Rita Wilson) gets her fingers comically smashed in an automatic car trunk door, and Charlie gets thrown out by the swingers of his no-kids condo, and Matt Dillon shows up snarling, as a macho scout camp commander.

I would have thought that even just reading this script, naked, without sets or glitz or production value, would have terrified these two guys so much they would have immediately have run off looking for Jason Reitman. Didn’t Williams cringe at the idea of donning a superhero James Bond suit with jets and repeatedly crash-landing in a park pond? Didn’t Travolta object to the sequence where he flirts with an obtuse, horny tanning gym attendant while his buddy screams for help and gets fricasseed? Didn’t they have qualms about the camp scene where, in true Farrelly Brothers style, they both get shit-faced?

Didn’t they quail at Dan’s dog funeral scene, with Dan laying his old pal to rest and Charlie showing up, cradling another dog in his arms? Or the golf scene with the grinning Japanese executives, where (surprise!) everybody keeps getting hit in the balls? And couldn’t somebody have taken pity on poor Seth Green, so he wouldn’t wind up in the grand finale zoo scene as a rock-yodeling rock-a-bye doll in the arms of a guy in a gorilla suit?

The end-credits scenes are lousy too, and they don’t even look like out-takes. To tell the truth, the whole movie looks like an out-take.

You’d never guess from all this that Williams is the greatest improvisatory comedian this side of Jonathan Winters, or that Travolta is the neo-noir star who made Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty. Listen, Williams has improvised better comedy with more laughs than this while ordering breakfast, or while tipping bellboys. Travolta got more laughs than this dying in Pulp Fiction, or during the scenes in Get Shorty in which he doesn’t appear. Seth Green and the gorilla are just good friends. And the gorilla gets more laughs than this when he makes his cameo appearances at bar mitzvahs written by the Coen Brothers.

Somebody must have thought that director Walt Becker could recapture the magic of Wild Hogs, even without hogs and with a script that frankly makes Wild Hogs look like The Odd Couple. But as I always say, while tipping the bellboy, never send an Old Dog to do a Wild Hog’s new tricks. And never watch a movie that puts The Four Seasons‘“ “Big Girls Don’t Cry” on the sound track, just as a character gets her hands smashed in an automatic car trunk door.

Actually, I just don‘t believe Travolta and Williams really read this script or made this movie. I believe that this is all a fraud and a sham. This is actually a horrible joke being played on the costars by Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, who went off somewhere, bought one of Pauly Shore’s unrealized projects, found an animatronic Williams and an animatronic Travolta, locked Green up in the gorilla cage, yelled “Magic Time! Disco! Disco!“ and came up with the magic that is Old Dogs. See, there’s an explanation for everything.

– Michael Wilmington

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon