The movies of Jason Reitman thus far are cinematic snake oil, and they grow more unctuous by the film. Aim is taken at a social malady, which is subsequently surrounded by diversionary bluster and washed down with innocuous, syrupy sweetness that lingers just long enough for people to walk away momentarily satisfied.
Each of his films wears a glossy coat of glibness and moves along snappily (often coasting on emotive, indie-pop songs when actual human feelings can’t be gleaned from the situation or characters) to its uplifting, yet hollow, conclusion. Thank You for Smoking was slick and agreeable, although it sanitized the eviscerating wit of the book on which it was based; a buoyant cast and the guileless music of Kimya Dawson kept Juno afloat through the choppy waters of its cringe-inducing dialogue and trite take on teen pregnancy.
But Up in the Air left a downright bilious taste in my mouth; if the movie were a plane—especially one that its main character, Ryan Bingham, was aboard—I would charge the cabin, wrest the yoke from the pilot and crash the motherfucker into the sea.
The film begins by holding a dirty mirror up to our dark economic times then promptly squeegees the grime away in favor of glowingly reflecting, with Reitman’s trademark canned warmth and winking humor, people who profit off the misery and cowardice of others. The movie aspires to social commentary at the prospect of Bingham—a man who gets paid a ton of money to fly around the country firing people for weak-willed corporations—losing his own job to the innovation of laying off employees by video (ah, modern technology). But it lacks the conviction to say anything meaningful, instead heaping on plot devices designed to make viewers empathize with Bingham; the self-absorbed and self-described “career transition counselor” has a revelatory family encounter and gets what passes for his heart ripped out and stomped on by a fellow traveler (Vera Farmiga, lending the movie and her character more vibrance and intelligence than either deserve).
As played by George Clooney at his hangdoggiest, Bingham claims compassion for these people who are about to have their lives and livelihoods ripped out from under them while he enjoys the privileges of flying first-class, staying in ritzy hotels and—oh please, oh please—attempting to rack up enough frequent-flyer points to join the 10-million-mile club; it would be unethical to just shitcan them via Skype.
Much was made of how Reitman employed the recently laid-off in some of the firing scenes (except in the ones that required overwrought theatricality to apply a dose of liberal guilt; then he used pros like J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis). Never mind that any one of these folks would probably have made a more interesting character than Bingham; they’re not human beings so much as props used to trigger emotions in Bingham and his eager, head-chopping protégé that are meant to make them seem human (the reprehensibility of the primary characters is illustrated by the fact that it takes someone they’ve fired killing herself to weigh the pros and cons of enjoying a plush lifestyle at the expense of ruining the lives of others).
My favorite quote from the movie comes from the insufferable corporate-climber-cum-Bingham-replacement (played, it must be said, excellently by Anna Kendrick) when she asks her unwilling mentor if he can “stop condescending for one second, or is that part of your bullshit philosophy?” The same could be asked of the film itself.
To lose one’s job—especially in this economy and especially in America, where we hardly bat an eye at spending hundreds of billions of dollars blowing people up on the other side of the globe but get worked into a tizzy at the prospect of ensuring all our citizens (not just rich ones or those with good jobs) have quality health care—is to be faced with losing everything. It is to have every aspect of one’s life thrown up in the air.
Thankfully, there is another recent movie—one filled with genuine anger, heart and humor—that understands this. That movie is Tokyo Sonata.
We first see Megumi, a housewife in suburban Tokyo, closing a door that has blown open amid the prelude to an approaching storm. The film shifts to her husband, Ryuhei, at his office job, where he learns he is no longer needed.
Thus begins the erosion of a family that also includes an aimless teenage boy, Takashi, on the brink of adulthood and an adolescent son, Kenji, who seems wiser to the world than the grown-ups surrounding him.
Initially, Ryuhei tries to conceal his joblessness; he dresses in his suit and leaves home with briefcase in hand every morning. He spends the days alternately standing in line at the unemployment department and hanging out with an old friend who has also lost his job and who counsels Ryuhei on how to maintain appearances, including programming his cell phone to occasionally ring, which he can pass off as important, business-related calls.
Meanwhile, Megumi, a dutiful housewife and mother who yearns for something more, has secretly obtained a drivers license; the oldest son is contemplating joining the American military; and the youngest has funneled his lunch money into private piano lessons strictly forbade by his father.
Directed and cowritten by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a filmmaker best known for high-concept horror movies like Cure and Pulse (although perhaps the real-life horror of unemployment in the current economy is a logical progression), Tokyo Sonata takes viewers to unexpected places, sometimes jarringly, always with purpose. There is Ryuhei’s quiet indignity at taking a job cleaning toilets—including one that rivals Trainspotting’s Worst Toilet in Scotland—in a mall; there is Megumi’s reawakening; there is Takashi’s discovering happiness abroad; there is Kenji’s moment of grace (and I’m not referring to his inevitable piano performance, which concludes the film and which Kurosawa infuses with beauty, catharsis and questions).
Kurosawa is not afraid to leave his characters (and, in turn, viewers) with questions. Although the film has its extreme, if not fanciful, situations, each of the characters reacts with humanity and the doubt, impulsiveness, regret and righteousness implied therein.
While Tokyo Sonata ends palatabley, even optimistically, Kurosawa (whom I am obligated to mention is of no relation to the great Akira Kurosawa) doesn’t sugarcoat a poison pill. In the film’s world—as well as in the real one—hard times can scatter us, change us and bring us back together, but they leave scars that are not easily masked.
Kurosawa also shows us that entertainment, be it images or music or words or some combination thereof, can provide a soothing salve for the wounds of these dire times. That’s not quackery; it may even be art.