Thursday, December 17, 2009

'Up In The Air': Another Empty Balloon

By Lars Trodson

In Manohla Dargis’s review of “Up In The Air” she has this to say about actress Anna Kendrick, who plays a supposedly cutthroat young executive named Natalie Keener: “The ferocious Ms. Kendrick, her ponytail swinging like an ax, grabs every scene she’s in, which works for her go-getter (go-get-him) character... She’s a monster for our times: a presumed human-resources expert who, having come of age in front of a computer, has no grasp of the human.”

The critics have been falling all over themselves about Kendrick, and this adulation was sanctioned this week by a Golden Globe nomination for the young actress.

Now, I defy anyone who has yet to see this movie to find a scene, any scene, any moment, any second, where Ms. Kendrick’s ponytail swings like an ax. It does not happen -- in fact, it mostly hangs limp.

As did Kendrick's performance. The detail about the ponytail is maybe a minor one, but it's telling. I think when critics latch on to something, they desperately want the audience to see the same thing. So, hence, Kendrick’s ponytail becomes a weapon of mass destruction. In order to bolster this argument of a ferocious performance, Manohla wants you to see something that simply is not there.

The beautiful thing here is that you don’t have to take my word for it. Just go see the movie, and then let me know the scene or, presumably, scenes, where Kendrick struts and jousts with such cutting authority.

Perhaps movie critics are even more detached than we’d like them to be, or perhaps they want to live in a world where they imagine they have more influence than they do. I think they think that if they tout Kendrick often enough, and she ends up winning an Oscar or Golden Globe, that they may have traded their diminishing readership for some kind of industrial influence.

But while I have no choice for any actor for a best supporting actress role nod, Kendrick, God bless her, decidedly is not it.

Because if these critics think that Natalie Keener, as played by Kendrick, is the living embodiment of the modern, heartless, striving executive, then they have not met one.

Kendrick is cast as a Cornell graduate who is a change agent in the business world. She may have some sharp dialogue to relate, but her shoulders are so narrow and her posture not autharatative enough, and her voice so small she is not going to intimidate anybody. It does not work - she is a child trying to impersonate an adult. This was not the right actress for this part.

Think of this: Would a "ferocious" executive start to screech uncontrollably in the lobby of a hotel after she gets an email from her boyfriend announcing their breakup? I'm not saying that even the most heartless executive would not be moved by the bust up of a relationship, but they would not wail about it in public. That scene was truly cringe-worthy, and off key.

"Up In The Air" also gets George Clooney's big scene wrong. Clooney plays a professional henchman -- he fires people no one else has the guts to. But after hooking up with equally manipulative Vera Farmiga in a hotel lounge, Clooney's Ryan Bingham suddenly feels his pinched heart growing three times its normal size. And so, "Up In The Air" suddenly reverts to one of the schmaltziest of movie cliches -- the hero suddenly foregoes his big career chance to go running into the arms of his true love.

This fantasy would have lost none of its power if Bingham had forced his way to the end of his speech in front of the business convention even after realizing his heart was no longer in it. It would have moved the arc of his story along, bridging the old guy with the emerging one. And then he could have run off to Farmiga. But by simply replaying an old rom-com trope, with Bingham implausibly walking away from the podium in front of a high-paying audience -- the movie completely gives up its hip, modern cred.

Director Jason Reitman tried to make up for this by introducing a cold twist, but by the end its too late. The movie is a modern reworking of an old fantasy, that you can have your life and enjoy it, too.

The movie is too hip, however, to say that their characters can have it all, but in the end they don't lose too much. Everything kind of pretty well works out.

What the hell good is that?