Really, Film Critics … ‘Up in the Air'?!

An attempt to understand what elements in movies reach people so successfully

Do we go to the movies — or to be more reflective of the times, do we order on Netflix and pay per view or illegally download movies — to escape from reality or to look at it in a heightened way? 

I believe we think we are going for the former but we really are seeking the latter.

As one screenwriting sage put it — and I won’t further promote a man who makes a ton of money offering false hope of success to mediocre screenwriting hopefuls — we watch a movie with a deep attention we rarely give to our working or personal lives.

We think we are ducking out from the real world. We think we are going to veg out, relax. But we watch that movie with a sharply attuned sense of concentration that would rival a surgeon’s at the operating table.

Movies are our way of really coming to grips with life, not avoiding it. And boy are our eyes peeled and tails up. 

I say all this because the movie “Up in the Air” seems to have struck the proverbial chord.

One of my critic groups, the Washington, D.C., Area Film Critics Association, has just voted for it as best picture. Really? Best picture? A well made, entertaining, yet middlebrow movie starring George Clooney?

Other critics around the country are also raving about this film. You could drown in the gushing backwash gurgled up by such respectable print critics (they’re the ones that know how to think and write in complete sentences) as A.O. Scott of the New York Times and Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. And already, the meta-industry’s nattering nabobs are touting it for Best Picture, enthused by the movie’s combination of entertainment value and — as Variety approvingly put it — “lightweight existentialism.”

This is not to declaim the tastes of movie critics or second-guess what movie I wish they’d reserve their enthusiasm for. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie myself, though not with the rationalizing rapture of so many. Nor is this my lead-in to what criteria I propose for best picture nominations.

Far from it. This is really an attempt to understand what elements in movies reach people so successfully. (When I truly find out, by the way, I won’t be giving away the formula. I will entertain all bids from Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal and Twentieth Century Fox.)  

If the answer were star power, how come Clooney didn’t make “The Men Who Stare at Goats” a ringing success a few weeks ago? Why didn’t people flock to see “Good Night, and Good Luck”? Although he’s very good in this movie, he’s really no different than he is in any other movie. There’s no question that director/cowriter Jason Reitman and screenwriter Sheldon Turner should claim the lion’s share of the credit.

My conclusion centers on the movie’s portrayal of “real” people as victims of this economy. In case Hollywood hasn’t noticed, this country — and the rest of the world, which is an even bigger movie-going market — has been hurting economically for a few years. And Clooney’s fictional job in the movie is telling people they are fired.

Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a sort of corporate mercy killer, who flies all over the country to sit with the poor bastards who are about to be dumped by their companies. With a soothing voice and an instinctive feel for neuro-linguistic bulls—, he looks real people in the eye and — on the behalf of the company they spent their careers with — breaks up with them.

He tells them that all the great people in history often found themselves in just such a lowly position before taking the steps that brought them fame and fortune. When one “real” person holds up photos of his grandchildren and asks “What should I tell them?”, he offers the argument that this grandfather can now spend more time with those kids. And he slides over a package of “transition” out of the company.

He does it with such Clooney-esque charm, most of them obey, thinking they are walking into a new glorious dawn.

At the moment, those victims are most of us. Suffering or facing layoffs. Worried about how we can afford to spend for gifts these holidays. Weighing whether to face the indignity of the unemployment line — and the moral question of taking taxpayer money for nothing — or to keep looking for jobs that seem not to exist. We are hurting and worried big time.

So when we watch people on the receiving end of these involuntary exit interviews, these debriefings into oblivion, we are startled into recognition. And that “lightweight” existentialism hits us right in the gut. And we realize that the movies are still one of the most direct ways to reach people’s deepest impulses, no matter how cheesy and star-powered the movie might be. When the movies even slightly strum a chord of our shared experience, we resonate so strongly, we find ourselves talking about Best Picture.

“Up in the Air” doesn’t take us up and away from ourselves. It takes us deeper into ourselves. And that’s what we’re always looking for.

Hollywood, I am now taking calls.