To the list of the biggest lies of all time (“The check is in the mail,” “I’ll still respect you in the morning,” etc.) this must now be added: “All the answers are in your packet.”
No, they aren’t. Many answers are in the packet you get handed after someone tells you that your position at work no longer exists, but they do not tell you anything about the questions you care about most: Will I get another job? How will I pay my bills? Did anything I did here mean anything at all?
Most people in that position will not be asking questions about the person who is handing them the packet, but “Up in the Air,” based on the novel by Walter Kirn, he is our hero. Close enough, anyway, as he is played by George Clooney, whose sleek movie star glow and perfect tailoring give his character a surface perfection that contrasts with his struggle to hold onto his freedom and make sure nothing holds onto him. For him, being a professional brought in by corporate management to fire people in massive layoffs is the perfect job, each relationship with an almost-immediate ending.
Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who is most at home away from where he lives. Even the most generic of hotel rooms has more personality than his apartment, too personality-less even to be considered spare. The 290 days he spent on the road last year were the ones where he felt most connected, most authentic, most at home. In his apartment, he feels rootless. What he loves about travel is the thousands of micro-encounters, all encapsulated into tiny predictable pieces. His affinity points at hotels and airlines gets him an extra “Nice to see you again, Mr. Bingham!” with a smile as fake as Bingham’s assurances that the answers are in the packet. But it is the very fake-ness of it that makes Bingham feel at home because he understands it and it understands no more about him than he wants it to.
At one point in the movie, his sister, who is about to be married, sends him a cardboard cut-out photograph of herself with her prospective husband so that Bingham can take pictures of it in different locations for a scrapbook they are creating instead of the honeymoon trip they can’t afford. Reitman creates a nice, understated contrast between the artificiality of the “travels” by the cardboard duo and Bingham and his fellow road warriors.
Bingham is not the first person and certainly not the first movie character to think that he can get through life with maximum efficiency, with as little weighing him down or holding him back as possible. He has systems for maximizing momentum and minimizing inertia from a small group of impeccable and virtually identical suits to the formula for getting the most out of frequent flier miles. When he finally meets a woman (Vera Farmiga) who speaks his language — their flirty banter about who has more prestige points and which hotels have the best amenities is more delicious than a warm chocolate chip cookie at your check-in — part of what makes it fascinating is that neither Bingham nor the audience can tell at first whether this is just one more frictionless encounter or a connection that will make him re-think his attachment to being unattached. Farmiga matches two-time Sexiest Man Alive Clooney’s rhythms perfectly, and watching these two glossy creatures circle and parry is one of the great cinematic pleasures of the year.
In one respect, Bingham harks back to the iconic American cowboy, alone in the wilderness. In another he is the essence of 2009, in the one sector of the American economy that is benefiting from the catastrophic avalanche of failure that will forever identify the end of this milleneum’s first decade. Co-screenwriter/director Jason Reitman (“Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno”) shrewdly puts Bingham in the middle between his tantalizingly silky no-strings counterpart and a spooky, Scrooge-like vision of another aspect of himself. A young, ambitious newcomer (a superb Anna Kendrick) to his office has an idea about how to save money by being even more ruthlessly efficient. Why do all that flying when you can fire people by video chat?
Reitman continues to populate his films with characters we want to know better and actors who make even small parts into gems of poignancy and meaning. Melanie Lynskey, Danny McBride, Jason Bateman, and J.K. Simmons are irresistible, but there is also a mosaic of reactions from the newly terminated that is even more unsettling when you find out that these are real-life survivors of lay-offs, recruited by Reitman for what they thought was a documentary about the impact of the economic crisis. And be sure to stay through the credits for another telling real-life moment.
“Up in the Air” is very much of its time but it is also one of the best films of the year for its sympathetic and layered understanding of the issues that affect us in good and bad economic times and its recognition that it is here, in these stories, where the questions left unanswered in the packet are explored.
The mood is romantic. The couple is parked in a secluded spot overlooking their charming home town. They lean in for a kiss. And then an alien rocket ship lands. I hate it when that happens.
Okay, no I don’t. I enjoy it. That’s a classic cheesy 1950’s alien invasion movie set-up and “Planet 51” knows that very well. The scene we have just watched is from a movie called “Humanoids” and it is happily being enjoyed by a theater filled with rapt, popcorn-chomping, little green creatures with antennae. Just like the couple in the car on screen. Dorothy, we’re not just not in Kansas anymore; we’re not even on planet Earth.
It feels like an idealized, if retro suburban Earth setting, though. The houses have white picket fences and the soundtrack has standards from the 1950’s. You could imagine Dick and Jane, Ozzie and Harriet, or Archie and Veronica playing hopscotch on the sidewalk, if they were green and had four fingers.
In this idyllic setting we have Lem (voice of Justin Long), very happy because he just got a job in the planetarium and is beginning to think Neera, the pretty girl next door (voice of Jessica Biel), kind of likes him. And there’s Lem’s friend Skiff (voice of Seann William Scott), who wears braces and works at the comic book store. And then things get complicated when an alien arrives.
That would be one of us.
This is “E.T.” in reverse. The American astronaut is the alien invader. His name is Chuck (voice of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). While many of the people on the planet (I know, they’re not human, but I’m going to call them people) are terrified and determined to kill, capture, or dissect Chuck, Lem, Neera, and Skiff are willing to try to get to know him.
This theme is very similar to the more serious Battle for Terra 3D earlier this year. But it is sillier and sweeter, with a cute robotic sidekick somewhere between R2D2 and a puppy. It is also a little bland. It is a shame that a movie tweaking retro cliches falls into the white bread conventions itself, especially from a Madrid-based production company. That they believe Americans will only buy tickets to movies about white guys shows that the message of the movie about how it is all right to be different has not really been learned.
Twenty years after his groundbreaking “Roger & Me,” documentarian-provocateur Michael Moore returns to some of the same themes with “Capitalism: A Love Story,” about the financial meltdown and what it shows about the failures of our financial and political systems. Before “Roger & Me,” about the shut-down of General Motors operations in Flint and other parts of Michigan, documentaries tended to be balanced, straight-forward, and dull, the kind of thing we’d snooze through in Social Studies class. But Moore’s movies are brash, confrontational, opinionated, and fearless. He has taken on guns, insurance companies, and the war in Iraq. Twenty years ago, he predicted General Motors would fail. He predicted that we would find no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that health care would become a central political and economic issue. And now he takes on the financial meltdown, and once again he is naming names and pointing fingers.
Like Balzac, Moore believes that behind every great fortune is a crime. And with one percent of the population having more money than the lower 95 percent put together, that feels like a crime, and a very foolish one, because there is not enough money even in that one percent to make up for the collapse of the entire society. Moore’s most telling argument is about the extinguishing of the middle class, and the consequences of losing the crucial foundation of not just our economy but our culture.
Once again, Moore gives us a collage of archival footage, stories of individual heartbreak, and more stories of institutional corruption and callousness. If it is not really a coherent, linear explanation of what went wrong. For that, see I.O.U.S.A. and “American Casino” and listen to the superb series of podcasts from Planet Money. Moore’s facts are about one small group of trees in a very large forest. But his film is a howl of protest, sturdily founded in a clearly authentic moral outrage. In a chilling parallel to “Roger & Me,” there are scenes of foreclosures and evictions that would make a pre-ghosts Scrooge burst into tears. Moore tells us that since that first film, the devastation of his home town of Flint has spread throughout the country. And then, in a goosebump-inducing revelation, we see that foreclosure letters are coming from nowhere else but Flint, in a pathetic and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to find some sustaining enterprise to keep its economy alive.
Moore also uncovers a shocking and apparently pervasive piece of financial engineering. Major companies took out millions of dollars of what they called “dead peasant” insurance policies on their employees without telling them. That means that if these employees died, the companies collected huge life insurance payments. It is one thing to have “key man” policies on the top executives. But companies like WalMart and Ameritech took out policies on the lowest-level employees, especially young, healthy ones, in the hopes that they would outsmart the actuarial tables and make a profit on the death of their employees. Moore even finds a memo apologizing that the death rate was only 72 percent, so the profits were less than anticipated. But, it goes on to say, let’s look on the bright side — there were three suicides and that kept our numbers from being even worse!
Moore devotes too much time on some tangential stories like the privatization of juvenile detention in Wilkes-Barre that led to a kickback scandal. As horrifying as the story is, he is unable to make a compelling case that this kind of corruption is the inevitable consequence of capitalism. Indeed, the same kind of kickbacks have been known to occur in government settings. His portrayal of the bailout as completely driven by unjustified fear is overstated and his recommendation that we all respond by breaking the law is silly and irresponsible.
But when he focuses on the stories of the people most affected by the economic meltdown, he knows how to make us feel their struggles without impinging their dignity. He shows us laid-off workers staging a sit-in to demand their back pay and a family living in a truck who, with a Capra-esque assist from their community, become squatters in what once was their home. Most wrenching is the story of a farm family from Peoria, Illinois, evicted from their home of four decades. When I spoke to Moore at the Washington, D.C. premiere this week, he said he had hired a lawyer at his own expense to get their home back. Moore is frank about grounding his positions in religious faith, taking on those who say that exploitative capitalism is consistent with God’s laws. He not only dubs an old movie to have Jesus endorsing bank deregulation, he consults with the priest who married him and other clergy to talk about whether our current system is immoral, even sinful.
Moore proves to be an able investigative reporter and an archivist, retrieving an old television commercial from Countrywide, the mortgage company at the heart of the subprime crisis, putting it in the context of the payoffs Countrywide gave to legislators and regulators through favorable VIP mortgages and fee waivers, even paperwork waivers, to keep them from paying too much attention to what was going on. And he uncovers some long-lost footage of Franklin Roosevelt, who was more successful in implementing the fundamental rights he fought for in the countries the US helped to rebuild after the war, including our former enemies, than he was at home.
The movie is rated R because of three bad words, or, rather, the same bad word three times. Trust me, teenagers already know this word. And this is a movie they should see, to begin their investigation of what has happened and to help them resolve to make sure it can never happen again. Moore’s film makes no pretense of being balanced, but with the Chamber of Commerce spending $100 million to defeat any effort at regulatory reform under the phony banner of “economic freedom,” in my mind a bigger abuse than the bailout (which was a loan and is already significantly repaid), it helps balance the debate by reminding us what that definition of freedom has brought us.
Four big movies are opening this week. There’s a comic clash of cultures “Our Family Wedding” when “Ugly Betty’s” America Ferrara and “House of Payne’s” Lance Gross fall in love. “Twilight’s” Robert Pattinson and “Lost’s” Emilie de Ravin play characters who are both dealing with tragic loss who try to find solace in each other in “Remember Me.” “She’s Out of My League” is an outrageously raunchy comedy with Jay Baruchel (“Tropic Thunder”) as an airport security guy who falls for a dazzling girl (Alice Eve) and finds his biggest obstacle is his own insecurity (closely followed by learning to ignore the terrible advice of his friends). And in “The Green Zone,” Matt Damon reunites with Paul Greengrass, the director of the last two Bourne movies, for the fact-based story of an American officer who finds he cannot trust his intel about weapons of mass destruction and has to find out for himself.