Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Up in the Air and the Perils of Award Season Hype

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Up in the Air and the Perils of Award Season Hype

by Tony Dayoub


A number of you (including an ex-girlfriend) have written me to ask when I plan on reviewing Up in the Air. A fair question considering that besides Avatar, The Hurt Locker, and Precious, Jason Reitman's recession-era comedy has been hyped as a shoo-in for multiple nominations come Oscar time.


As someone who is currently assessing the best films of the decade, I strive to see as many films as I can to give you the most inclusive and honest conclusion I can. Sometimes, I'm not successful. My opinion on the first half of the decade is slanted heavily towards American films. 2005 through 2007 were years that proved especially difficult in finding the time to get out and see everything since these were the years in which I started a family. But I can assure you that since I've started Cinema Viewfinder back in January of 2008, I have seen virtually everything that has come down to Atlanta, and thanks to screeners and my annual trip to the press screenings at the NYFF, even some things that haven't. I can safely say if I haven't seen it, it's because I deliberately avoided doing so.

Also, I try to write about everything I see. Sometimes I don't for the best of reasons. Though I loved this year's Duplicity (so much I lurved it), I just couldn't find a way to do the damn film any justice without giving most of it away. So I'll get to it, once it's had some exposure. Other times I don't write about movies because my heart just isn't in it. Which brings us to Up in the Air.

The truth is, I saw this movie in the early days of December. But I found it mediocre to okay at best, a sharp contrast from all the hype it had already been recieving as one of the best movies of the year. And before you even think it, I generally work hard to avoid reading any reviews before I watch a film—to avoid any "opinion contamination" for lack of a better term. But when you open your email, and you're getting news flashes from the Associated Press, Daily Variety, etc., really pushing the idea this film is going to sweep it up at all the major awards; when you hear Robert Siegel on NPR's All Things Considered interviewing a very congenial-sounding Jason Reitman (Juno) about his latest movie; you just can't help having a prejudice going into the film. And my prejudice was this: If I'm anything less than completely bowled over by this average-looking George Clooney indie comedy, I'm going to think it sucked.

And guess what? The film, likable in some parts, just kinda sits there for me. Funny? Not really, just kind of amusing in that oh-that's-how-it-is-in-my-life-how-perceptive-of-them kind of way. Relevant? Only in that Clooney's main character fires people for a living, and a lot of people are getting fired right now. But short of their immediate reactions to being fired, we never really see the effects of the recession on any character in the movie, a missed opportunity which could have been explored in depth when Clooney's character goes to his sister's wedding in a small town in the Midwest, an area hard hit by layoffs. Poor Avatar is getting eviscerated (including by me) for aspiring to its relevance simply by planting some well-known "War on Terror" buzzwords here and there, but at least Cameron's film is technically innovative. Performances? I'm actually not one of Clooney's numerous detractors who attack him for always playing some version of his smug self ad infinitum. Some actors are not cast because they are "acting" as much as they are for being "personalities" (see Cruise, Tom; Schwarzenegger, Arnold; and Wayne, John). But with my highly elevated expectations, Clooney struck me as smugger than ever.

Which is to say, this is not a review of Up in the Air, not like the ones I generally write. It's more of a cautionary tale about buying into the hype. It's more of a since-you-wanted-to-know-what-I-think rant. It's more of a thought piece anticipating Cinema Viewfinder's new mission to focus on cinema—whether good or bad—that interest this writer, and resisting the urge to write about a movie simply because it's what's expected.

6 comments:

Patrick said...

I'm sorta with you on this, I liked it more than you did, but I didn't think it was anywhere near the great movie the general consensus seemed to think it was. I wonder if people (critics) took it to be some sort of profound anti-business statement, which I think plays well with critics.

Troy Olson said...

I just got around to writing about this today, as well, and I agree wholeheartedly with you. You sum up the general malaise from watching the film pretty well in this one line:

"Funny? Not really, just kind of amusing in that oh-that's-how-it-is-in-my-life-how-perceptive-of-them kind of way."

Everything in the movie is like that. I didn't hate it or anything, but I'm just shocked that it has gotten the reviews it has. This doesn't even have the excuse that SLUMDOG or CRASH had as being emotionally manipulative "message" movies -- it's a frickin' indie comedy.

Oh, and I must have a man crush on Clooney, because I always seem to like him when everyone else doesn't. Go figure.

Jason Bellamy said...

this is not a review of Up in the Air, not like the ones I generally write...

And yet it is, because you've written about your response to the movie as honestly as possible, which is something that all critics should attempt to do.

Nice job. And not just because I agree with you on many points (particularly that too much has been made of the movie's relevancy, if you will, in relation to the current unemployment crisis). Overall I clearly enjoyed it more than you -- I must have a man crush on Clooney, too -- but I certainly don't think it's an especially deep film.

MovieMan0283 said...

Review or not, I quite enjoyed reading this. Pre-hype usually poisons a film for me, but I usually find that direct contact can cleanse, if possible. There are a number of films I disliked because the hype was so intense, smarmy, and smug, but ended up enjoying when I finally saw them. Usually, however, I don't "love" them (one exception, though obviously not a "film", is Sopranos.

At first glance, the Clooney film strikes me as a bunch of Hollywood know-it-alls wanting to have their cake and eat it too. Let's reference the sagging economy, but do so glamorously and from the perspective of the hotshot success rather than the poor dopes being laid off. If there's anything worse than Hollywood being out of touch it's Hollywood trying to be in touch and failing miserably, adding insult to injury in the process.

But maybe I'll change my mind on direct experience and my prejudices will be shown up as just that. Most likely, I'll find it amusing and lightly entertaining, if still somewhat smug, and certainly overrated. We shall see...though probably not until it comes out on DVD.

At any rate, it's interesting you want to move in the direction of reviewing only what interests you. I'm sort of leaning the other way - flirting with the idea of reviewing new releases with some regularity. I'm getting a little tired of being so out-of-touch with contemporary cinema. I've seen a lot of great classics over the past few years, but as a film-writer and aspiring filmmaker I feel I have some lingering obligation to keep an eye on what's actually going on in the film world at the moment. In the past year, for economic as well as other reasons, I barely went to theaters at all. Of the big releases, I think I saw only (500) Days of Summer (in order to review it for my newfound Examiner post) and Antichrist. Overall, I certainly saw less than ten 2009 new releases in theaters.

Which is fine but I'm not sure I want the trend to continue (of course, it started for a reason, probably around 2003 - the reason being that virtually every time I went to a movie in theaters I was disappointed and frustrated).

Tony Dayoub said...

@Patrick and Jason,
I'm not sure I'd say I didn't enjoy it. It just didn't register at the level that so many critics were praising it. You know, it's just unimpressive. Like Troy says above, "I didn't hate it or anything, but I'm just shocked that it has gotten the reviews it has. This doesn't even have the excuse that SLUMDOG or CRASH had as being emotionally manipulative "message" movies -- it's a frickin' indie comedy."

@MovieMan,
"...it's interesting you want to move in the direction of reviewing only what interests you. I'm sort of leaning the other way - flirting with the idea of reviewing new releases with some regularity. I'm getting a little tired of being so out-of-touch with contemporary cinema."

I'm not going to shut the door on contemporary films. I still plan on seeing all of them. HOWEVER, I'm only going to write about them when I'm moved to. And this applies to both good and bad. Last night, I saw CRAZY HEART and I've really got a hankering to write about that little gem.

What I meant, is I'm not going to prioritize contemporary films over classics I want to get to, not when I've put off continuing my Pasolini Retrospective; examining post-neorealist Italian cinema; and so many intriguing films I have sitting on my DVR like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, BEAT THE DEVIL, THE CAINE MUTINY, D.O.A., THE DUCHESS OF LANGEAIS, LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS, A FACE IN THE CROWD, HUSBANDS, IMITATION OF LIFE, IN A LONELY PLACE, JULES ET JIM, LADRI DI BICICLETTE, THE LAST DETAIL, MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, PARTY GIRL, PERFORMANCE, PERSONA, and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (consider this a preview, and a contract to keep me honest).

MovieMan0283 said...

I'd keep you honest, but then I'd be a hypocrite! I can't count the number of times I've promised my readers upcoming series or reviews and then not delivered...though yes, I still intend to deliver on some of them (however, having learned my lessons, I ain't saying which!)