DOING THE RELATIONSHIP RAG: Reviews of Up in the Air, Nine and A Single Man

What, to me, is most amazing about Up in the Air is how well it works when, to be perfectly honest (and hopefully Jason Reitman isn’t reading this blog—who am I kidding, of course, he isn’t), the movie really doesn’t work. Even the people I know who saw it all say they enjoyed it, but that it doesn’t quite rise to an Oscar worthy movie, even though the buzz now is that it will win best picture. I think the problem is that the focus of the plot and theme are unclear and in the end, the authors (screenplay by Sheldon Turner and Mr. Reitman) contradict themselves as to what they are trying to say. It’s about a man who flies around the U.S. firing people for other companies. It’s also about a man who has created what he considers to be the perfect life for himself, one in which he has no commitments and no serious relationships (especially with his family, for some reason never really explained). These two aspects of the script really have nothing to do with each other; he could be flying for any number of reasons (selling aluminum siding among others) and he would be the same person. The firing people plot is written as if it was central to everything that is going on, but because it isn’t, the plot isn’t quite as emotionally involving as it might be. George Clooney plays the airport hopping everyman, Ryan Bingham. To other people, he’s suppose to come across as very happy and together; he’s even suppose to come across that way to himself. But to the audience, or at least to me, he comes across as one of the most unhappy and depressed people I’ve ever met, though very high functioning. He claims that airports and traveling is his home, but it’s unclear what he gets out of it that makes him feel that way (the only time he seems really happy is when he and his cohorts crash a convention; it’s only at this moment that I really see what he sees in traveling); he’s also a motivational speaker, but it’s unclear why since his stock speech should only motivate people to cut their wrists.. His own motivations are also unfocused. When he is informed that he will no longer be traveling, it’s unclear whether he’s unhappy for the reason he states, that there is a dignity to firing people in person (which could very well be true because Bingham is wonderful at his job, often destroying people’s lives only to help them rise from the ashes like a phoenix), or whether he’s unhappy because he may not make his goal of 10 million frequent flyer miles. The authors seem to want to have it both ways. They seem to want to have everything both ways. When Bingham starts an affair with fellow traveler Alex Goran (a wonderful Vera Farmiga, who may finally get her Oscar nomination her fellow thespians have been wanting to give her for some time), it’s obvious from the formulaic structure of the piece that she is married. It’s so obvious that even the fact that it’s not remotely believable that she wouldn’t tell him or would go home with him to his sister’s wedding for the weekend or that Bingham should have noticed a wedding ring tan line shouldn’t fool anyone watching. Though there is a formulaic air to the piece, it doesn’t quite go there. The implication of the story is that Bingham is going to be fired and get a taste of his own medicine, but the script never comes close to this. Instead, it contradicts its own message by having Bingham come to realize that he needs to be involved with others, but then have his hopes dashed when he finds out Goran is married. In other words, the authors are basically saying, sorry, we were wrong, Bingham was right all the time, it’s best not to have commitments. But as I said, it’s amazing just how enjoyable the movie is. The acting is first rate, including Jason Bateman as the oily villain, Bingham’s boss who foams at the mouth because the economy is continuing a downswing meaning more and more people are going to be fired; and Anna Kendrick, as Bingham’s student, who sees Bingham’s business for what it is and gets out while she still can. The dialog is incredibly witty and lovely to listen to. It’s solidly directed and sticks with one. It may be one of the best movies that doesn’t work that I’ve seen in some time.

It’s doubtful that a film like Nine (directed by Chicago’s Rob Marshall) could have an American director as the main character, mainly because Nine is about a director in anguish because he is not sure he has anything new to say and when it comes to American directors no one really expects them to say anything in the first place. Nine is very European in its philosophy, which is appropriate since it is based on Frederic Fellini’s film 8 ½ and the central character is based on the celebrated Italian director. I guess I’m going to be in the doghouse on Nine, because the buzz and most critical feedback on the movie has been rather negative, but I loved it and I don’t really know why people seem to dislike it so much. It’s about a director, Guido Contini, who is having a creative block. We should hate him. He’s nothing but a drama queen about it and most of his problems are his own causing. He keeps asking for pity when he doesn’t deserve it (he’s like the Orson Welles character in Me and Orson Welles). Yet I felt his pain and I so wanted him to come out of his funk. The director is played by Daniel Day-Lewis and many critics have also said he is the problem with the whole enterprise. But for my money, I think he got Fellini as filtered through the persona of Marcello Mastroianni picture perfect. The slouch, the chain smoking, the desire to do what’s right even while he’s in the middle of doing what’s wrong, the belief in God. It’s all there and for me, he just about holds it all together on his own. But he gets great support from Marion Cotillard as his long suffering wife; Judi Dench as his costume designer and surrogate mother; Sophia Loren, as his long suffering, now deceased real mother; Penelope Cruz as his mistress; Fergie, as a prostitute from the director’s childhood; and in the most exciting musical number, Kate Hudson as a member of the paparazzi who would like to bed Guido. The musical numbers often fail or succeed depending on the quality of the numbers (Kander and Ebb, who wrote the original music, tended to write tunes that sounded sort of all alike, no matter whether they were in Zorba, Nine, The Rink or Chicago). A Call from the Vatican and Follies Bergeres fall short, but Be Italian and My Husband Directs Movies get their job done quite well. However, the highlight of the musical numbers has to be Cinema Italiano, written directly for the film. It’s an early MTV type number in which Hudson suggests that Contini is often known more for style over substance. The screenplay, adapted by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, has more depth than the original book of the play, which is more pure farce from my memory. I think the audience liked the film as well. Once the movie was over and the credits were rolling, no one wanted to leave.

A Single Man, based on the book by Christopher Isherwood, is a lovely, lyrical tone poem about a man trying to come to terms with the loss of his lover. One of the most powerful and moving scenes comes early on. Colin Firth, as English college professor George, receives a phone call from the brother of his lover Jim informing him that Jim has died and the caller has to pretend that he doesn’t know that George was his brother’s lover when in reality he does and George has to pretend that he and Jim were only friends when they had actually been together for sixteen years. Firth is incredible here showing deep pain in his face, but careful composure in his voice. But the scene is key in a way that perhaps the director Tom Ford and writers David Scearce and the aforesaid Ford didn’t realize (or perhaps they did; every scene in the movie is very studied in a fashion photographer way, so perhaps this was intentional as well). The uncredited actor making the call is Jon Hamm, the star of the amazing TV series Mad Men. Mad Men also takes place during the same time period (A Single Man happens on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis as did one episode of Mad Men) and is every bit as carefully designed and photographed as is A Single Man. The two are full of both substance and style and have the ability to take one’s breath away with scenes that sneak up on you without warning. What is it about this period that is beginning to intrigue us? It was the prelude to one of the most profound changes in American history, but it seems that it is what is happening before the deluge than after it that is most fascinating to us today (see also Pirate Radio and An Education; though not American, it seems to be the same idea). George is considering killing himself (a subplot I don’t remember from the book), but first has to spend a drunken, emotional evening with his best gal pal Charley, a luscious, wonderful boozing Julianne Moore, as well as trying to figure out what to do with one of his students, Kenny (played by About a Boy and Skins’ Nicholas Hoult, but with a flat, unconvincing American accent that gets in the way of his acting) who keeps showing up for some reason. In the book (at least from what I remember), Kenny is very straight and has no idea George is gay (in the novel Kenny isn’t sleeping with his girlfriend because they don’t have a place to have sex, so George sets it up so that Kenny can use his place once a week); in the movie, Kenny seems out to get his professor in bed. I’m not sure the ending works for me; George dies, but not from suicide. It seems unnecessarily downbeat and I’m not sure what the author is trying to say with the irony. But still, it’s an emotionally involving movie that grabs you and won’t let go. Though Ford has been criticized for emphasizing style over substance in his approach to telling the story, the look over the ideas, I don’t agree. I found his studied direction to be one of the things that pulled me into George’s emotionally wrenching story.

So tell me what you think.

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