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.