Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the 82nd Academy Awards here.
You can tell a lot about the American psyche from the groupthink that emerges around the designated movie of the moment—in particular, from the conventional wisdom on whether or not a given film has social or political relevance. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, despite its visceral view of war as madness and addiction, has been pegged as an Iraq war movie that has nothing to say about the Iraq war: action cinema unencumbered by politics. Meanwhile, Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, which stars George Clooney as a frequent-flying layoff specialist, is presumed to be an X-ray vision of the Way We Live Now, a film of tremendous social import that, per Frank Rich’s endorsement in the New York Times, uses “the power of pop culture to salve national wounds that continue to fester in the real world.” What does it say about the way we think now that the emblematic chronicle of our Great Recession sidesteps the economic plight of the unemployed to wallow in the existential crisis of the lonely corporate executioner?
A closer look at Reitman’s work—and it should be noted that his films, with their slick surfaces, jaunty rhythms, and brisk patter, are designed precisely to discourage close looks—reveals a peculiar consistency, even though all three of his features have originated with the material of others (a Christopher Buckley novel, a Diablo Cody screenplay, a Walter Kirn novel). On one level, it is hard to fathom his success in the supposedly liberal bastion of Hollywood: His politics lean right when they are at all legible, and yet he’s embraced as an insightful social satirist, the second coming of Billy Wilder. On a deeper level, though, this disconnect makes perfect sense: It speaks to the brazen hucksterism that is so much a part of Reitman’s method. He’s a mediocre filmmaker but a world-class panderer. His movies, which instinctively play to both sides of a charged issue, are the height of smoke-and-mirrors artistry, wholly dependent on the concealment and the semblance of meaning.
Reitman’s first film, Thank You for Smoking(2005), centered on an obfuscating Big Tobacco lobbyist, belongs to the dubious genre that people like to call equal-opportunity satire—which is another way of saying that it sprays potshots in all directions to avoid anything so onerous as a point of view. Juno (2007), which won Cody a screenwriting Oscar just as Up in the Air looks set to do for Reitman and Sheldon Turner, works overtime to make an accidental pregnancy look like the cutest, wackiest thing that could possibly happen to a teenage girl. But Juno at least triggered some debate about its politics. Up in the Air has been widely taken at face value as social commentary, which is, more than anything, a sad reflection on what passes for real-world relevance in a Hollywood movie today.
Whatever Reitman’s original intentions, Up in the Air has become a movie about its own significance. The director, an avid believer in his own press, has suggested that it is nothing less than “the portrait of 2009.” I honestly don’t know what the film has to say about 2009—other than that it’s kind of tough out there—and my guess is that Reitman’s claim (which echoes the abundant critical praise for the movie’s “eloquence” and “prescience”) has something to do with the long history of evasion and denial in American cinema when it comes to matters of work and the workplace.
The first film in history was an 1895 short by the Lumière brothers with the self-explanatory title Workers Leaving the Factory. In the years since, as if in deference to their function as a leisure activity, movies have been largely blind to the daily rituals of work and the meaning it has in our lives (unless the characters are, say, detectives or assassins). Documentaries are the exception, as are sporadic outliers like Mike Judge. There is a kind of bracing novelty when a big movie with a glamorous star so much as glances in the direction of the real working world, where people toil, lose jobs, and struggle for survival (and have done so since long before 2009).
Reitman is canny enough to understand this effect and cynical enough to exploit it vampirically by padding out his film with testimonials from actual unemployed people (obtained under false pretenses: He held casting calls for the newly terminated, claiming that he was making a documentary about unemployment, and coaxed his subjects to relive their dismissals on camera). But Up in the Air isn’t really about these authentic casualties of 21st-century American capitalism or their fictional counterparts. The jobless ranks merely form the backdrop—and, worse yet, provide the fodder—for its hero’s rogue-charm offensive and redemptive epiphany.
Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is a hatchet man with a human touch, whose method supposedly puts to shame the clumsily cold MBA manner of Anna Kendrick’s go-getting upstart. When a middle-aged downsizing victim (played by J.K. Simmons) reacts with anger, Bingham, in what is supposed to register as a mark of empathy, advises the man to reconnect with his youthful love of French cooking. (It’s a scene that could only have been engineered by someone who has never had to think twice about economic security.) Later, we learn that a woman who had threatened to kill herself when she was fired went ahead and jumped off a bridge. The news leaves Bingham with a heavy heart and leads him to recognize the emptiness of his career choice and business-class lifestyle. Up in the Air aspires to the panoramic force of a state-of-the-nation address, but it obeys the solipsistic rules of a Hollywood star vehicle.
Just as Juno smuggles anti-abortion sentiment into a self-consciously hip quirkfest, Up in the Air shape-shifts from a fondly critical view of the cruel business world to a family-values tract. Unemployed men and women attest to the renewed importance of friends and family, and the commitment-phobic Bingham, who has a sideline delivering motivational lectures on the art of traveling light, realizes, perhaps too late, that you do need baggage in your life after all. But maybe it’s giving Reitman too much credit to suggest a sneaky Trojan-horse aspect to his work. Whether consciously or not, a Jason Reitman film is a mass of self-negating contradictions—they may add up to the illusion of complexity, but the net effect is zero.