Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hard Sells (Up in the Air and The Informant!)


During the Great Depression, Hollywood produced classic screwball comedies (My Man Godfrey, et al) that covertly noted the social hardships of the era while also offering the kind of captivating entertainment that allowed audiences to forget their troubles for a couple hours in the dark. We're now in the worst economic straits since that time, yet a movie like Up in the Air isn't content with the simple pleasures of cinema -- it also wants to be taken seriously, and these two goals, at cross-purposes to put it mildly, pull the picture apart.

For a while, Jason Reitman's film achieves the first exceedingly well. Ryan Bingham, the professional "terminator" hired by gutless executives to fire their employees, fits George Clooney like a glove. As Bingham jets across the country, looks his victims in the eye and exudes brusque empathy for their plight, Clooney does more than sell to them the opportunity for a fresh start; he sells the character's lifestyle, making living out of a suitcase, driving expensive rental cars and sleeping in posh hotels a seductive alternative to the traditional family unit.

It's not an overstatement to compare Clooney's achievement here to the best of Cary Grant -- only Grant, in his most pleasurable star-wattage vehicles, never worked with a filmmaker as insecure as Reitman. I haven't read Walter Kirn's original novel, but the last act of the movie has all the compromises and contrivances that result from studio "brainstorming" sessions. After conveying the appeal of Bingham's travels, underlined by his fly-by-relationship with fellow traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), Reitman then detours into the kind of family-first sop that would have Judd Apatow nodding with approval. After an interminable detour at his sister's wedding, Bingham decides that he wants to settle down after all. But Alex, continuing the traditionally negative portrait of female characters with masculine names (the implication being good women don't act like men), gets an unconvincing third-act revelation that betrays Farmiga's sharp, radiant performance: had Reitman directed The Lady Eve, he'd have punished Barbara Stanwyck's character for grifting.

I'm also unclear how to take the turn-of-events that leads to Bingham's young protege/rival Natalie (Anna Kendrick) quitting their Omaha-based company. Natalie, you see, advocates a more impersonal approach to firing people via computer, which is implemented by the company only to be scrapped when an individual she terminated meets a tragic end. However, the incident happened when Natalie tried Bingham's method, so how does this negate her approach and endorse his "artistry"? Most of Up in the Air isn't as bad as how it ends; it doesn't reek of the toxic fumes from Reitman's last film, the Diablo Cody-scripted Juno. I don't mean it as a putdown that Reitman does superficial very well; movies could use more "Golden Age" fun. But it's another case of a child-of-Hollywood trying to connect with "real people" and missing by a mile.          

Clooney's pal Matt Damon doesn't coast on charm in Steven Soderbergh's latest head-scratcher, The Informant! He mugs like crazy as Mark Whitacre, the true-story-based upper-manager of lysine-producing ADM company in early-90s Decatur, IL who became an undercover mole for the FBI in exposing a price-fixing scam. ADM was involved in illegal activities, the movie makes clear, which were overshadowed by the discovery that Whitacre himself was bipolar pathological liar who made off with several millions before his eventual arrest and conviction. Damon put on weight, a cheesy mustache and a loud hairpiece for the role; he also motormouths his lines in a manner that's funny, if not exactly convincing in how it fools everyone into thinking he's a stand-up guy.

Soderbergh deserves credit for not turning The Informant! into a social-issue-meets-star-power statement like his own Erin Brockovich. From Marvin Hamlisch's bouncy retro score to Whitacre's odd stream-of-consciousness interior monologues, he ably deconstructs the genre. Unfortunately he doesn't add anything in its place, or go half as deep as Shattered Glass in revealing the face of an unreformed narcissist. The Informant! is amiable, mildly intriguing, and a cosmic waste of time. Making movies has become nothing more than a game for Soderbergh, and if he's having any fun he's not sharing it with the rest of us. 

8 comments:

Steven Santos said...

I guess this is the Melanie Lynskey post, including a reference to "Shattered Glass".

I remember liking "The Informant!" when I saw it, but probably could not recall much of it beyond Damon's performance. I'm not really sure what I was supposed to take out of the movie because it doesn't really say anything about Whitacre's delusions, but just keeps repeating the act of lying again and again. Imagine "The King of Comedy" if all it contained were scenes of Rupert Pupkin showing up at Jerry Langford's offices.

"Up in the Air" continues to irritate me to no end, particularly from the wedding of Clooney's sister until the end. There's the reveal about Farmiga's character, the phone call where she tells him to grow up (when I thought she was the one who needed to grow up), the seeming condemnation of Clooney's character for living what I thought was a healthy life as a single person to that final montage of the laid off people espousing the director's family values bullshit.

I can't help but make this observation. Perhaps, the last person who should be making films about our current economic crisis is someone who owes his ability to make films due to his last name. I'm not quite sure what Reitman understands about struggling, which explains the general smugness of his filmography.

Craig said...

There are times when I like Reitman. There's a scene in Up in the Air when Ryan, Alex and a group of fellow boat passengers run barefoot on the beach at night into their hotel that's beautifully shot and makes Bingham's lifestyle seem fun and appealing. Like you said, though, the movie ultimately condemns Bingham for his choices -- a condemnation that doesn't even make sense, since, if he's deluded about a future with Alex, then what exactly is wrong with his life in the first place, as long as he's made peace with it? I agree that she seems to be the one who's in denial (and a little nuts). And that doesn't track with the character up to then.

Your comparison of The Informant to The King of Comedy "if all it contained were scenes of Rupert Pupkin showing up at Jerry Langford's offices" is hilariously true, and makes me want to see Scorsese's brilliant satire again. There's a movie that, in 1983, was so prescient about where celebrity culture was headed it's scary.

Finally, great call about Lynskey, which I overlooked completely. I've never disliked her as an actress, yet it's curious that I never think of anything to say about her.

Kevin J. Olson said...

The Informant! is amiable, mildly intriguing, and a cosmic waste of time. Making movies has become nothing more than a game for Soderbergh, and if he's having any fun he's not sharing it with the rest of us.

I agree! I liked Damon here somewhat, and I kind of liked the jabs at films like Shattered Glass and The Insider but it didn't have the satirical bite it needed to be a truly great comedy. I also think your statement about Soderbergh -- one of my very favorite filmmakers -- is apt. Despite my unabashed love for the man he has this fascination with making movies that are very evident they're fun for him and those involved in the process...but something is getting lost on the cutting room floor. This energy and excitement was definitely palpable in films like Out of Sight and The Limey; hell, even in the second Ocean's movie you had good looking movie stars in beautiful foreign locations, and it worked extremely well. However, lately I just don't feel like Soderbergh is giving me that excitement. Che was an interesting experiment, but not in the intriguing way that something like Kafka or Bubble was.

I think The Informant! was him saying that he's going back to sharp character studies with an indie sheen to them...but it just didn't work. His commercial tendencies (again I love your use of the term "game") to just kind of point the camera and go with it, letting the actors do their thing, didn't come off as the brilliant 1970's type satire he was going for (I like Steven's comparison to The King of Comedy).

Anyway...great capsule reviews here. I have nothing more to add to the discussion about Up in the Air...a throwaway movie that I neither loathed or loved.

Craig said...

Kevin:

This energy and excitement was definitely palpable in films like Out of Sight and The Limey;

Yes. I remember reading that while filming Out of Sight Soderbergh kept saying to himself, "It's gotta be good; it's gotta be good." That certainly came through onscreen in that film. But I don't get the sense he's doing that anymore.

His commercial tendencies (again I love your use of the term "game") to just kind of point the camera and go with it, letting the actors do their thing, didn't come off as the brilliant 1970's type satire he was going for

The comparison that comes to mind is with Hitchcock, who became so proficient at making movies that he had to devise new challenges for himself to stay fresh: using only one camera (Rope), making an entire thriller inside a studio apartment (Rear Window), and so forth. I think Soderbergh has reached a near-equal verisimilitude (he's even become his own cinematographer) and has gotten bored. The difference is Hitch never lost sight of his audience, whereas Soderbergh is closing in on himself, relying on the indulgences of his celebrity pals to keep his projects green-lit. (He really does a disservice to Damon in The Informant!, who showed some things I'd never seen from him before.) Maybe the collapse of Moneyball will be the wake-up call he needs.

Craig said...

Strange, but my blog's homepage is still showing only 2 comments for this post even though now there are more. Hope you can see that your comment's here and that I responded, Kevin.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I like what you say about Hitch there. I think that Soderbergh's enthusiasm in all aspects of filmmaking (leading to his obsession with shooting all of his films) lead to his staleness. At first it was kind of cute, but then it just became banal. I miss the old Soderbergh.

On the Moneyball thing: I hadn't realized that fell through for Soderbergh and crew. I am still extremely interested in seeing that movie get made though. I think for baseball geeks like me it can still be an endlessly fascinating character study about someone who was so cutting edge 10 years ago...I say was because it seems like the game is actually passing Beane by these days as more advanced scouting and philosophies seem to be making "Moneyball" obsolete...take the Mariners and Indians' front office, for example.

It looks like his next few films (two of which are pre-production, which means nothing when Soderbergh is attached) are tackling the action genre (the third is a musical about Cleopatra and Antony with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Ray Winstone!)...and Knockout is written by Lem Dobbs, so at least that re-teams him with one of his more successful screenwriters, and it's a different genre for him to try. We'll see how it goes. At least it's something different.

Craig said...

Kev,

Last I heard, Brad Pitt loved the original "Moneyball" script but rejected Soderbergh's seriously tinkered version, so they parted ways. It may now still feature Pitt and be directed by Bennett Miller, but who knows.

I'll be curious to see "Knockout," since Lem Dobbs was quite outspoken about Soderbergh's changes to his "Limey" script. Have you ever listened to their commentary track on that film? Dobbs criticizes him on numerous occasions, and I have to give Soderbergh credit for taking it like a man.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Yes! That commentary is one of the first DVD commentaries I ever listened to. I remember being shocked at how abrasive Dobbs was on the track, but you're right...Soderbergh took it like a man. I think Dobbs penned Kafka, too. It'll be interesting to see how the two work together now.