Friday, February 26, 2010

"Would You Like the Cancer?": Stories of the Contrasting Interpretations to "Up in the Air"

Up in the Air, took all our expectations for what appeared to be a light-hearted romantic comedy and threw it out the window. From the blithe, cheerful music that characterized the trailers to the playful exchanges between Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) and Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), the producer created a prototypical persona of the adventurous man not willing to settle for anything more concrete than casual acquaintances.

However, these are the type of stories that we usually expect will end in the re-imagination of the protagonist’s persona, one where family is a reaffirmed value. To this end, George Clooney did a wonderful job as a man whose simple life philosophy is turned upside down by love, the one human emotion his character strived to avoid. Clooney played Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizer who travels most of his life away from human interaction. Interestingly enough, he likes it that way, and Up in the Air was a tale that followed the widening of his world beyond the airport terminal. Ryan, ultimately, made the transformation and realized that there is something beautiful to a genuine relationship, but his life remained largely unchanged. More surprisingly, Alex and Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), the two women that convinced him of the value of love and family, largely revealed their own lack of subscription to these notions.

It is precisely through this journey that Up in the Air is able to elicit powerful, personal emotional responses from both the technically-oriented critics as well as the movie-going audience.

Critics are raving about the movie Up in the Air, which is smart, creative, and funny. George Clooney brought his inherent likeability to the character of Ryan Bingham, with whom viewers might otherwise have had a difficult time connecting. Critics pointed to specific narrative devices, such as using montages of Bingham packing his life into a carry-on, that augmented the light tone characterizing the first part of the film, as well as the superb directing of Jason Reitman.

The general audience, however, exhibited a much more varied response. As a whole, audiences for Up in the Air were significantly less enthralled by the movie than professional critics. Many audience members found Clooney’s “arrogance and self-awareness” irritating, and most audience members who disliked the movie found it either boring, predictable, or both. One disappointed audience member pointed out that while the movie itself was predictable, the storyline was quite “implausible” as people rarely make a 180-degree turn like Clooney’s in real life. Other audience members felt disillusioned after the movie turned out to be much more depressing than expected. With a Christmas day release and coy trailers that hid the final plot twist, one audience member expected a comedy but instead found a “depressing movie.” These reactions contrast with the majority of the critical responses to the movie, which tended to praise the acting and the plot, described as an “observant look at how a man does a job.”

The negativity in audience responses could be attributed to several factors. Some audience members criticized Clooney’s arrogant nature. If an audience member is pre-disposed towards disliking Clooney, that would influence his or her perception of the movie. Many audience members suggested not seeing the film if one knew or had personally been affected by layoffs. Up in the Air used actual footage of real-life layoffs, and if the audience members knew the film used this footage, it could have adversely affected their opinions. With the current recession and the millions of recently laid-off workers in America, the layoffs in the movie would have been a depressing reminder of the difficult times that lay ahead for many of the unfortunate moviegoers.

Ultimately, there was a beautiful message to be gained, but in the end, it cost the livelihood of Ryan Bingham, and perhaps the audience’s, too. The characters’ ups and downs and the centrality of worker layoffs throughout the movie also highlighted the unpredictability of real life, and the bitterly ironic ending served to show that sometimes, life does not work out the way one would desire. However, if we take Ryan Bingham’s reaction as a clue, Up in the Air ended with a heartening message–happiness is subjective.

-Amelia Brazil, Stephen Craig, David Ng, Tenzin Seldon

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