WHY I NEVER SEE MOVIES: UP IN THE AIR EDITION

I dunno, man. Hollywood movies and me, we just don’t get along too well. I am told that I expect too much. Do I? Here is what I want for my 7 or 8 bucks or whatever it is now:

1. I want to be entertained. I feel this is a very reasonable thing. These people are professionals, after all, and whether the movie is a comedy, drama, documentary, or a let’s-blow-stuff-up-real-good thing, I want to feel like the experience was rewarding in some way, that I was glad I went, that I learned something or emotionally connected with something or that I was dazzled by its beauty or that I laughed hard enough to be able to say, “Man, that was funny.”

2. I want to be taken in. For that 90 minutes or so, I want to be thinking of nothing else but the story of the movie. I want your movie to make me forget about my laundry waiting at home and the coughing guy in the back row of the theater. How I don’t want to be dragged back to reality by gaping plot holes, flat characters, poor continuity, total lack of detail, or construction so predictable that you can figure out what’s going to happen in the whole movie 20 minutes in.

3. I want decent popcorn and a bottle of water that isn’t 5 damn dollars.

So this brings me to the movie I saw a couple of nights ago, “Up In The Air,” starring George Clooney and directed by Jason Reitman, who also wrote the screenplay. I went because it was rated pretty highly and the subject – a man who spends most of his time traveling around the country firing people – seemed to have a lot of good stuff to mine. It turned out to be the most frustrating kind of movie for me: a good film that could have been so much better, if if if. It drives me absolutely wild. I cannot understand how the Hollywood folks can spend millions and millions of dollars on all these movies and then not do their best to make sure it is tight, believable, and that they have gotten every last bit out of it they can. Why I don’t understand this is because I don’t understand a basic function of the entertainment business in general – that “good enough” is truly good enough for most people. If I had my name on a project in 5-ft.-high letters on screens all over the world, a permanent expression of my best work, I would do everything I could – everything – to assure it really was my best work.

I’m not going to go through the whole plot here – you can find that on imdb.com or such – I’m just going to mention a couple things that just stopped me from buying into “Up In The Air,” which stopped me from fully enjoying the film in the end. (If you haven’t seen the movie and want to, don’t read this now because I will be writing stuff that will irritate you as you view the film. Come back later.)

Let’s start with the casting of George Clooney in this film. Why did it feel like, hey, let’s pop George in here, that’s guaranteed bank and he kind of fits the character, in that he is a man. But come on now. The character of Ryan Bingham, a guy who has almost completely turned his back on any kind of personal relationship or commitment in order to live his life out in the comparatively-orderly comfort of airports, rental cars, hotel rooms, and office space, would not be the irrepressibly-charming Clooney. Life doesn’t go that way. A guy who looks like Clooney and who was not a complete lunatic would have women lined up for even hourly appointments, and he’d be taking them. Guys who spend almost every moment of their lives in an airplane, car, or office seat are not incredibly fit (despite 2 seconds of film showing Clooney swimming in a hotel pool). They also do not have rich, deep Coppertone tans and shiny perfect white teeth. I felt like I was watching GEORGE CLOONEY the whole time, not “Ryan Bingham.” That’s a problem, because I am aware that Clooney is a movie star and not a corporate downsizing professional. Someone else should have been cast in the role, or Clooney should have made himself look and act a little more like this guy instead of Rico Suave On A Plane. He's an actor; that’s supposed to be his job. But then again, maybe his job is to pull people in to theaters just to gaze on his handsomeness.

The movie had some very funny lines, all of which felt natural. But there were so many more opportunities for humor, and for more heartfelt drama as well, that were never taken. It seemed to be played safe. I’m not talking about yanking the film up and down like a rollercoaster in some cartoonish way. Real life is just wider and deeper than what this movie allowed its characters to show. Instead, for emotional depth it relied on the reactions of the poor folks that were getting fired throughout the film – some of whom I think were not actors and were real people who had recently lost their jobs. But just showing a few seconds of people we don’t know getting angry or crying or threatening suicide or talking about their kids going without isn’t enough. The depth has to come from the main characters, and none of them – Clooney, Vera Farmiga as his road paramour, and Anna Kendrick as an uptight smart-young-thing – were well-written enough to be fully believable. The movie stopped short, and so did my investment in the characters and their lives in the film.

The climax of the film pivots around Bingman’s sister’s wedding, leading to this almost-50-year-old loner attempting to change his ways. It just doesn’t sit right. Bingham was estranged from his family for years, didn’t really seem to be troubled by that, and we don’t really see him getting all that much out of seeing them again other than enjoying breaking into his old high school with Farmiga and having some nostalgia moments. His supposed loneliness was never really felt earlier in the film at all, so when he starts making some clich├ęd gonna-go-after-that-girl moves, we wonder “where did that come from?” Half-century mark dudes don’t change their ways, other than to have brief flaming mid-life crises or switch to light beer.

Farmiga’s character falls apart at the same juncture. Playing Clooney’s female pro traveler twin, she seems content for the occasional hook-up on the road, until the movie leads you strongly to believe that she falls for the guy and would like something more permanent. When that turns out to be anything but the case, once again her reactions are just played so blandly that it doesn’t make sense, especially when she is caught in a lie and has much to lose. She’s not angry or dismissive enough to be the split-personality playa, and not sad or fearful enough to show any loss or caring. Also, in the crashing-the-corporate-party scene in the film, her pink blouse magically turns into a black sweater. Help me out a little here, Continuity People, come on. (And getting some of the airport details wrong was just plain lazy.)

It all comes back to the story for me. If you aren’t willing to go 100% with your characters, get right inside their heads, know them in and out so WE can know them, your story will break down. You don’t at all have to give me every last detail or make a 10-hour epic; you have to know the essential details, though, and make a consistent, believable character to be able to tell a great story, and then hire the right people to portray it. There’s no getting around it. Now, whether or not you want to tell a great story might be another thing, huh? “Up In The Air” was “good enough” to get good reviews, some great reviews. It will win awards and turn a nice profit.

So, let’s go back to my expectations. Was I entertained? Some of the time, yes. It wasn’t a bad movie; it was an OK movie, no more. Was I taken into the story? Not for long, no. Was the popcorn good and the water cheap? No and no. A lot of really interesting ideas were brought up in “Up In The Air” – how someone can be isolated in the midst of the swirl of humanity that is modern travel, the process and impact of job loss, if contentment and happiness are possible without a partner, how technology both unites and repels, and the culture of “prestige perks.” If this film had been a little more thoughtful and took a few more risks, it could have been memorable. Instead, it’s just another movie, soon to be replaced by another one, and another one.

I'm making my own popcorn, at home.