Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Up in the Air and The Princess and the Frog

As a professional employment terminator, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) flies around the country doing the firing for employers who find it difficult to lay off workers in this time of economic depression. Always on the move, Ryan spends his life keeping one step ahead of commitments and responsibilities that could tie him down. In an artificial world of airplanes, airports, and airport hotels, it is easy for Ryan to ignore the anxiety and stress many others feel as the economy declines.

Of course, Ryan’s story reflects universal truths we are very familiar with – the importance of family and commitment, and it is predictable that Ryan is reminded of these truths as he travels, fires people, falls for a fellow frequent flier, sexy Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), and sees life through the eyes of fledgling terminator Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a tightly wound career girl in her 20s who is already wrestling with issues that Ryan has eluded for many years. The film is delightful, touching, well-written, artistically shot, pointed in its message, and the ride is very smooth, but it is made especially worthwhile by the performances of Clooney and Farmiga, and particularly Kendrick as angsty Natalie Keener.

Natalie Keener is one of my favorite film characters of the year. Hair pulled back severely, dressed in prim blouse and short black skirt and heels, Natalie is driven to be perfect – even if it means being perfect at telling people they have just lost jobs they have held for many years and watching reactions that range from rage to stunned silence to suicidal grief.

Coming from a generation that must be competitive in a very competitive world, Natalie has graduated at the top of her class. She’s got her whole life planned out, but she’s learning that life doesn’t always go as planned, and typing “with purpose” doesn’t necessarily get you where you want to be. Life for the employee terminator can be as sucky as life for the terminated. Yet through it all Natalie seems to know what matters in life and she doesn’t understand Ryan’s cluelessness. Her voice tied up in a controlled monotone, big eyes registering shock at how her job affects others, Kendrick shows Natalie’s vulnerability and her dawning insecurity in a world in which even perfection isn’t good enough.

Jason Reitman's film gets sanctimonious and heavy-handed at the end when fired employees, speaking as documentary-style talking heads, bare their feelings about their shaky futures and what they value in life. Family. Yeah, yeah, we got that. Is the film making a political statement? Does it really care? I took the film as a touching and entertaining character portrait.

The Princess and the Frog plays like it’s made-to-order – and in a hurry. Substitute as Cinderella: Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), an African-American New Orleans waitress who dreams of owning a restaurant. Replace Prince Charming with Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), the handsome, light-brown playboy from a fictitious country. Throw in a couple of cute animal friends: Louis (Micheal-Leon Wooley), a gigantic gator who wants to play trumpet in a jazz band, and Raymond (Jim Cummings), a spindly firefly in love with a star. Add delightful Disney songs reminiscent of previous Disney songs such as “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book and “Friend Like Me” from Aladdin. What you get is a concoction of colorful, fast-moving vignettes – the best taking place in the swamps of the bayou. (There's a hilarious routine in which the firefly causes three frog-napping hillbillies to knock each other senseless in Three Stooges style.) But within this mishmash of classic Disney elements, only brief glimmers of Disney magic shine through.


MovieMan0283 said...


I'm soliciting bloggers' favorites (of their own posts) for my year-end round-up at The Dancing Image. Here's the explanation (with a bit of a mea culpa):

Feel free to leave your own selection there - links to all submissions will be posted around the 30th, but I'll certainly be taking them after that too.

Thanks & happy new year!

Hokahey said...

Sounds good, MovieMan. Will do.

Daniel Getahun said...

Hmm, agree and disagree on minor details here.

Up in the Air - I was with you until the end because everything I've read about the movie has told me Reitman went out of his way to make a political/social statement. In my opinion, as you've read, he mostly failed. But as an interesting story with interesting characters, sure, I enjoyed watching it.

Princess - Maybe it helped that I saw it with my 12 year-old niece, but this one had just enough nostalgic magic for me to walk out smiling. I loved the characters and the music and I'll be happy if it brings a new generation into the old Disney films (Aladdin being my personal favorite).

Hokahey said...

Daniel, thanks for your thoughts.

I saw Princess with my daughter and she really enjoyed it. She loves Disney movies - especially the classics like The Little Mermaid - and I do too. So I enjoyed much of this one, and I felt it was a nice gesture thematically and as a return to hand-drawn, but I just felt it was formulaic Disney and not that memorable.

As for Up in the Air I felt that the emphasis was on the characterizations - with the focus on Bingham's wayward lifestyle - and I didn't get any political message until - jarringly - the montage of so-called improvised interviews. Reitman emphasizes the importance of family as a crucial theme in the film; I see that more than any pervading political message.

Daniel Getahun said...

Well I can't argue that Princess was anything but formulaic, but I still had fun with it and I hope it finds its way into kid's memories in between all of this CGI/3D/Pixar madness.

I agree that Reitman emphasizes family, but I can't reconcile it with all of the failed family situations presented in the film - both of Bingham's sisters, as well as Alex. I found it an odd and distracting contradiction, as much as I enjoyed watching the movie.

Hokahey said...

Yeah, I see what you're saying about the contradictions in Up in the Air - and yet the contradictions didn't occur to me as I was watching the film.

Anyway, I enjoyed both films. And I loved Princess as a visual alternative to the Pixar world.