One of the risks of doubling the number of films in the Best Picture category is that some of the 10 films, at least in this year's crop, start to seem mighty familiar.
Such is the case, as alluded to in previous reviews, with Jason Reitman's Up in the Air. Based on books set decades apart, it's unfortunate that two films up for the Best Picture Oscar in the same year are so similar. Without giving too much away, try not to see this film and An Education in the same weekend.
Up in the Air follows the story of corporate axe man Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who travels over 300 days a year to do the dirty work in company layoffs. A whiz at his job, Bingham revels in the distance his lifestyle gives him from relationships. So entrenched is he in his at-an-arms-length way of life, Bingham even gives motivational talks encouraging people not to weigh themselves down with people and possessions. But his streamlined swagger stalls when two women enter his life: fellow frequent flyer Alex (Vera Farmiga) and enthusiastic young coworker Natalie (Anna Kendrick).
When his boss assigns Ryan to bring ambitious but uptight Natalie along on his next round of firings to learn the ropes, she soon finds out she has little experience to back up her industry-changing ideas, specifically video-conference firing. While Natalie starts to learn about the personal, ugly side of the business, Ryan starts to question his aversion to settling down as he falls hard for his fellow road junkie Alex.
Thus, Reitman sets the stage for an often frustrating front-row seat into one travelling man's mid-life crisis. What is he running from on the road? Why is he estranged from his family? The problem with these questions is that Ryan as a character is that, until the very end, there's not much about him that is redeeming. He's got a smarmy way about him that allows him to be very successful at firing people, and apparently loses no sleep at night over it. We're supposed to think his travelling-man quirks, like racial profiling, are cute peccadilloes, but instead they come off as yet more chips on some repressed white guy's shoulder. Oh, how sad that this man who makes a living firing people is a commitment-phobe. He creates his own issues and isolates himself. He lives out of a carry-on, and then he's surprised when the women he's involved with move on, or when they don't see him as settling-down material, or when his siblings resent him. For much of the film, Ryan's character is one that the audience isn't necessarily sympathetic with. He's a professional smarm who avoids commitment and responsibility. His lonely life is a chosen one, so what's to pity?
The only thing that really redeems Ryan's character is his relationship with his young co-worker, Natalie. Although he first views her as a dangerous innovator that threatens to disrupt his free-flying lifestyle, the two serve as catalysts in each other's lives, each mentoring the other to important next steps professionally and personally.
But given that Ryan is such a lukewarm character, it's remarkable how Up in the Air keeps the audience caring. Much of the credit for that should go to the actors, who pulled out amazing performances, especially relative newcomer Kendrick, who up until now has been relegated to roles like the catty friend in the Twilight films.
Now let's look at the feminist issues at play here. Up in the Air does pass the Bechdel test, but not with flying colors. The two main female characters, Alex and Natalie, independent career women though they may be, still serve only as catalysts in the overall experience of Ryan, and have very little contact with each other, and nearly none that doesn't directly involve Ryan and talk of the perfect man.
Natalie's plot path follows some of the familiar themes of reining in assertive women and putting them in their place (see Taming of the Shrew or any number of John Hughes films). In this theme, uptight women need to be humiliated and taken down a peg so they can let loose, which is what they want to do anyway. As a highly-educated newcomer with innovative ideas about how to streamline layoffs with digital options, Natalie makes a huge splash at Ryan's office, but he soon teaches her that there's more to the industry than theory. When Natalie can't stomach the dark nature of the job, unable to remove herself emotionally, she quits. These are typical assumptions about women and work--they're too emotional or weak to do certain things. This would seem especially troubling, except for the fact that Natalie never wanted to do this job. She followed her boyfriend to Omaha and took a job that she was overqualified for and uninterested in, and she regrets the decision. But she's talented and ambitious enough to get out of Omaha and on to bigger things once she faces the truth about her job and her relationship.
But Natalie's career path could have easily mirrored Ryan's and even Alex's. In Alex's case, she's even found a way to feed her love for travelling and also have a strong sense of home, much as the oblivious Ryan finds that inconceivable because of his own personal failures. Although she breaks Ryan's heart, Alex also shows him what is possible--to have your cake and eat it, too. And although some, like this ladybrain, would take moral issue with her approach to on-the-road relationships, this film doesn't demonize her for her sexual decisions.
Feminist grade: C-
It barely passes the Bechdel test but does promote women's career independence.
Moviegoer grade: C
This has been the most boring review to write of the Oscar season, and we haven't even gotten to A Serious Man.