It’s not exactly breaking news that our economy’s in the dumper, employment rates are in a nose-dive and good folks nationwide are living in terror of losing the tiny shreds of security to which they cling. Generally speaking, in the past, such times gave rise in cinema to blatant spikes in entertainment escapism (Hey! Busby Berkeley!).
These days, not so much. Leave it to director Jason Reitman, the man who brought us the angrily mischievous “Thank You for Smoking,” to take what should have been a snuggly cotton romcom, turn it inside out and pour cold water all over it. That said, his latest wet blanket may be exactly the wake-up call contemporary romance movies have been waiting for.
First of all, it’s smart. Reitman’s source material is the acclaimed novel by Walter Kim, in which a middle-aged professional corporate down-sizer leapfrogs back and forth across the country to meet perfectly competent people and terminate their unsuspecting asses. The topic could not be more timely.
Though the book was originally written before the big downward spiral, Reitman’s decision to deploy this particular mercenary into the current public consciousness shows considerable insight into contemporary cultural anxiety, and very elegantly taps into the corrosive, ambient dread many of us face every morning.
The main character, Ryan Bingham, rains calamity down on people like the rest of us might hold open an elevator door. And he’s really good at it. As played by George Clooney, with charisma set to 11, he tempers his hits with a certain delicacy, a personal touch, and motivational guidance on finding omelets in broken eggs. He comes off as a kinder kind of Charon, stewarding his hapless victims into their boats and pushing them across to new shores. He insists on giving them at least the dignity of a face-to-face meeting, but essentially that’s where his respect ends.
It becomes clear that Bingham’s resolution to meet his prey in person is the means to a far more personal and dysfunctional end. Turns out, Bingham wouldn’t know love if it took his window seat. The man is incapable of any kind of ordinary human connection, and as such, has developed a remarkably unhealthy dedication to the solitary rituals of perpetual business travel. The packing, the rental cars, the little soaps. He loves it all, and nothing but. Where his squirming quarries repeatedly cry out their concerns for family, future and firm ground to stand on, Bingham’s one driving motivation in life is simply to rack up 10 million frequent flyer miles. Call him what you will—loner, rebel, free spirit—he’s really just kind of sad.
And, just when his craptastic little goal seems within reach, naturally, his own flavor of tragedy strikes—in the form of a know-it-all 23-year-old upstart (Anna Kendrick, fresh from the “Twilight” movies) who joins the company with an eye to reducing travel expenses by introducing a new, even colder-hearted, program of execution via Web conference. Bingham meets her challenge by reluctantly taking her under his wing to teach her the complications of real-life life ruining, and they hit the road, and the skies, together. Here’s where the sparks should lead to invaluable life lessons, friends become enemies, enemies become friends, hearts fuzz over and big smootchings ensue.
Not this time.
The irony of Bingham’s unraveling is wonderfully downplayed, and the trajectories of the relationships between the players are refreshingly unconventional. What exactly drives his overriding desire for complete emotional isolation is never really explored, and this makes the character feel all the more compelling. The initial “romantic” setups may all be lifted straight from any Sandra Bullock/Hugh Grant/Kate Hudson flick you may have seen in the last 15 years, but the payoffs are invariably unexpected. No one lands where they think they will, and virtually nothing gets resolved—in the most realistic and satisfying of possible ways.
In a story so caught in orbit around a center of uncertainty and disconnection, as it happens, ambiguity may be the most perfect, rare and mature choice of tools. In allowing the characters some level of authentic reaction to each other and their situations, letting the humor and horror flow in the most natural ways, Reitman’s movie very effectively subverts audience expectations, even as it does so to the characters on screen. It’s a great bait-and-switch on both sides, and one that may serve as a two-week notice to the vapid, undercooked romcoms we’ve been forced to tolerate for so long.
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