Monday, February 22, 2010

Andrew Sullivan

I don’t usually write about speakers in The Feminist Spectator, but last week, listening to self-described gay conservative Catholic Andrew Sullivan deliver an important public lecture here at Princeton, my ire was raised (not to mention my gorge) enough that I feel compelled to share a few thoughts.

I don’t read Sullivan regularly, either on his blog or in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly, where he’s a contributing editor. But I know his book Virtually Normal , which created quite a stir among progressive gay, lesbian, and queer people when it was published in the 1990s. “Gay” and “conservative” were oxymoronic, until Sullivan came to stand for both at once. He’s a provocateur, who enjoys nothing better than riling up his detractors and then standing his ground in the face of their attacks.

I respect polemic and those who thrive on it as much as the next person. But Sullivan’s rhetoric is shot through with the very contradictions his talk, “The Politics of Homosexuality,” purported to underline.

The lecture’s title borrows from Sullivan’s 1993 essay of the same name. He suggested that on the occasion of his talk at Princeton (February 18, 2010), he returned to the essay to see how he has or hasn’t changed his ideas about the issues it advanced. He insisted, from the outset, that he intended to think about these issues, rather than feel his way through them, a binary that already set my teeth on edge. How can we separate thought from feeling, especially when we’re talking about gay and lesbian politics? His emphasis on rationality at the expense of emotion, which was later belied by his own self-performance, implicitly chastised queer people for their righteous feelings about their own disenfranchisement.

Sullivan presented a taxonomy of politics and “homosexuality,” rationally pointing out the contradictions and deficits with each of the four categories he outlined. First, under “prohibitionism,” he addressed religious positions against homosexuality, debating arguments in favor of “natural law” that suggest homosexuality is “unnatural” since “God” made men and women to procreate. He agreed with those who say that the Bible prohibits man from lying down with man, but argued that Biblical literalism, taken to its extreme, would disallow lots of behaviors that the Catholic Church (his point of both affiliation and disidentification) in fact lets pass. He mused, If sex should only be about procreation, how does one explain infertile couples? Should they be prohibited from sexual relations because they can’t reproduce? Sullivan brought this kind of “rational” thought to his arguments throughout the evening.

Sullivan associates “liberationist” gay and lesbian discourse, the taxonomy’s second track, with Michel Foucault, whose ideas he proceeded to misread. In Sullivan’s interpretation of Foucault, gender and sexuality are “all in our heads.” Well, not exactly. Foucault and the school of “social constructionist” theories of gender and sexuality he in some ways originated, believe that sexuality is constructed by history and language. While men, for example, might have had sex with one another throughout history, they’re only called “homosexual” when culture decides to name these acts as such, bringing into being a stigmatized identity where there wasn’t one before.

Sullivan argues that we fall in love with people, not constructs. Of course we do! The constructs are the boxes of binary gender and sexuality that value “homosexual” very differently from “heterosexual,” which remains the dominant, powerful member of the pair. Sullivan ’s antipathy for “the deconstructionists” like Foucault and his “Ivy League” adherents was palpable, and he used his naïve reading of Foucault to generate audience support. He also proposed that “liberationist” gays, lesbians, and queers revel in their own outsiderness, that they’re determined to break down social institutions like marriage, instead of agitating to be part of them. He finds a deep contradiction in what he sees as liberationists’ construction of their own prison of difference and their insistence that dominant culture give them the key to social freedom.

“Conservatives,” the third in Sullivan’s taxonomy, he examined less generously than I expected. His disaffection from the Republican party is clear—he said that no gay conservatives remain in what’s essentially become a fundamentalist club. Clarifying that his own conservatism is based in a desire for as little government interference as possible, he described fundamentalist conservatives as those who want to go back to “the way things were” (whatever that is). Sullivan’s railing against the fundamentalist right’s contradictions was at least refreshing.

But his most over-the-top declarations came toward the end of his talk, when he described “liberalism,” the four aspect of his taxonomy. In liberalism, he suggested, minority groups are seen as vulnerable classes who need state protections Sullivan deplores, from anti-discrimination laws, to anti-hate crime legislation, to affirmative action. Considering gays and lesbians—and people of color—as a “victimized class” is offensive to Sullivan, whose politics of outrageous privilege implies that all one need do to empower ourselves is to “stare hate in the face,” to “spit in the face of prejudice.” Why should we be frightened, Sullivan asked. “Bring it on,” he announced repeatedly, with increasing vehemence. Liberalism infantilizes gay people by turning them into victims who deserve special rights. Not for Sullivan—no special accommodations does he need.

In his retreaded defense of the first amendment, Sullivan said he believes in the Klan’s right to demonstrate just as much as the right of drag queens to make a spectacle, as though neo-Nazi hate speech is on par with the pleasurable rhapsodies of radical faeries.

Sullivan looks forward to the day when there is no gay and lesbian rights movement, to the day when we can all be human together. I, too, anticipate that day. But what Sullivan leaves begging is what in the world we’re supposed to do until that utopian moment. Responding to a follow-up question, he remarked that he's worried by the virulent fundamentalism infecting regimes around the globe.

How, then, is anyone supposed to stand up to such hatred, to the threat of execution, for example, used against gay people in Uganda and Iran? Just by “spitting in the face” of this hatred and saying, “Back off”? Who in the world could do that without risking limb, life, or livelihood? If push literally came to shove, would the rather small-statured Sullivan be quite so brave, confronted by large men wielding baseball bats and intent on a bit of gay-bashing?

After systematically picking apart everyone else’s arguments, Sullivan couldn’t see the holes in his own. As a man sitting behind me said as we rose to leave, pity the poor Iranian lesbian, for only one example, who’s supposed to spit in the face of hate.

And what of the young man or woman or trans teen in the U.S., whose religious parents want to “cure” the disease of his sexuality by putting her in the hands of reparative therapists, who’ve emotionally and psychologically damaged incalculable numbers of gay men and lesbians? How is a 16-year-old supposed to say, “Bring it on” and spit in the face of her parents’ hate?

Sullivan speaks as and mostly for gay men. The sexism in some of his remarks was astonishing. Men's sexuality, he said, is more active than women's, and gay men have no "feminine" influence to control their drives. He trotted out old jokes, like the one about what lesbians do on their second date (rent a U-Haul; what do gay men do? What second date?). Speaking to a large public audience comprised of Princeton students, faculty, and community people, another LGBT speaker might have done much more to elevate the local discourse about sexuality.

Sullivan’s determination to see gay and lesbian and trans people as self-empowered makes him foolishly blind to the practices of hatred that make us very vulnerable indeed, to the vagaries of public opinion and to the practices of malice that many of us are unlucky enough to face, sometimes on a regular basis.

How privileged of Sullivan to think that he can stop speeding bullets with his bare hands. But the language of exceptionalism and individualism—also employed by commentators like Camille Paglia and Christina Hoff Sommers—does not an effective political movement make.

But then again, Sullivan isn’t describing a political movement for anyone but himself. In his party of one, he wins every time.

The Feminist Spectator

Saturday, February 13, 2010

It's Complicated

Meryl Streep and Alex Baldwin in It's Complicated

In writer-director Nancy Meyers’ latest ode to the empowered, later-middle-aged woman, Jane (Meryl Streep) is placed in the supposedly happy position of being a post-menopausal divorcée suddenly sought after by two men, one of whom happens to be Jake, the husband who left her 10 years earlier. Played by Alex Baldwin as a handsome if portly lawyer enamored of his own power and success, Jake left Jane for a younger woman, Agness [sic] (Lake Bell), who’s lithe, gorgeous, and cold. Instead of finding himself languishing in erotic bliss, Jake’s new life has thrown him back into the domestic turmoil with which he probably thought he’d finished.

Jake and Jane have three grown children, who still grieve their parents’ separation, even though the oldest is now getting married herself. Her marriage creates situations that contrive to bring Jane and Jake back together. In scenes filled with talented actors speaking terrible dialogue and trying to justify unbelievable circumstances, the Jake-Jane brood flutters around like little ducklings that lost their mother, even though it’s their father who left. Happily, Meyers doesn’t capitulate to the family reunification fantasy that provides the kids’ only function in the film. Instead, Meyers is too busy focusing on the liberating sexual dalliances that make Jane newly a-glow with the vitality she apparently lacked when there was no man in her life.

Jake tussles with Agness’s young son from a prior marriage, a little brat who’s meanly suspicious of Jake, and doesn’t trust his place in his mother’s affections. Agness doesn’t trust Jake’s ability to provide the sperm that seems her only reason for marrying him. In Meyers’s cosmology, adulterous husbands who flee long-term marriages with age-appropriate wives for younger women still in their baby-making prime costs these men; the price is being forced back into fatherhood in their own late-middle-age. That Jake can’t produce enough swimmers to get his new wife pregnant irritates her and humiliates and annoys him.

Part of Meyers’s mission is to even out the gender trouble between heterosexual men and women in this supposedly post-feminist moment. In It’s Complicated, leveling the gendered playing field means that in one scene, Jane’s daughter’s fiancé, Harley (a charming John Krasinski) appears in the family kitchen in the morning in his wife’s feminine pajamas, explaining sheepishly that he was cold during the night. Gender equality also means that while Jane fans herself and blows down her shirt to mitigate the effects of her hot flashes, Jake passes out right before they have sex from the effects of a drug that keeps him from urinating constantly.

On the other hand, “empowerment,” in Meyers’s fantasy for upper-middle-class white women, means professional success—Jane owns a popular bakery/café—but most importantly, a satisfying sex life. In one of the film’s most appalling scenes, Jane and her friends, all played by talented actors like Mary Kay Place and Rita Wilson, both wasted here, bemoan Jane’s reluctant celibacy. They actually imply that without sex, her body will dry up and blow away. The scene is played for adolescent humor, but its implications aren’t funny. I applaud Meyers’s insistence that middle-aged women can still be sexual. But her film implies that if they’re not having sex, they’ve failed.

So, naturally, the film proceeds to be all about sex. Her daughter’s pending marriage throws Jane in close proximity to her ex, and because he’s unhappy in his new marriage, he becomes sentimental about his old one. It’s Complicated is wish fulfillment for the jilted woman, in which the husband who dumped her comes groveling back, giving her the power to choose whether she wants him or not.

To flatter Jane’s sex appeal further, and to make her choice that much more complicated (at least theoretically, since Meyers telegraphs from the beginning that going back to Jake would be a bad idea), Meyers invents another suitor for our heroine. Steve Martin plays Adam, the architect who comes to design Jane’s utterly unnecessary new kitchen (the old one is already a model of modern conveniences and domestic aesthetics). Adam is still recovering from his own divorce, in which his wife dumped him. Two years later, he’s still gun-shy and uncertain.

Adam is everything Jake isn’t—he’s feminine to Jake’s alpha-maleness; he’s quiet and reserved, where Jake is boisterous and vivid; and he’s a politically correct, shy, and tender, while Jake is a wild and crazy guy (allusion intended). As a result, Jane gets to decide not only whether she wants a man in her life, but which kind.

Part of the fantasy Meyers creates with such relish is that Jane and Jake not only rekindle their relationship, but have fantastic sex in the process. As they undress, Jake wants to see her naked, suddenly waxing sentimental about the woman with whom he didn’t want to grow old. He’d now rather admire Jane’s non-reproductive body than be the sperm-bearer for Agness’s taut, fruit-bearing womb. Jake is nostalgic for a woman who will let him rest in his past without needing him to procreate her own future.

While Jane is attracted to her husband’s reunification dream, Adam’s utter difference from Jake also appeals. Adam is a soft-spoken, intellectual creative type, while Jake is a bull in a china shop. Meyers literalizes that metaphor in a scene in which Jake decides to surprise Jane by turning up naked in her bed while she’s in her bathroom getting ready to go to sleep. Jake strips and happily hops on top of the covers, arranging Jane’s open laptop over his, well, lap. He doesn’t realize that Jane and Adam have been Skyping—talking to one another through their computers—which lets them see each other through their laptops’ webcams. By covering his manhood with the computer screen, he inadvertently gives Adam a close-up for which the buttoned-down architect isn’t prepared.

Martin performs a comically revolted reaction to Jake’s penis writ large on his laptop screen, which sends the audience into gales of laughter. But there’s something vaguely distasteful about the scene, not the least of which is that the sight gag is so obvious and predictable. Adam’s huge over-reaction at suddenly seeing another man’s penis reads as kind of homophobic. His out-sized distaste seems too much misplaced protest. The scene’s cache comes from Jane and Adam’s too-twee attempt to be tech-savvy by flirting on Skype, but Meyers plays the somehow old-fashioned penis joke at Adam’s expense. And it’s hard to feel sympathy for him because the character is such a, well, pussy.

The script yields no surprises. Jane lets herself trust Jake again, and agrees to a date at her house for which she makes a gourmet, romantic meal. Of course, she sits alone watching the clock when he fails to show up. We see her sadly packing the food away (her children eat it later, surprised that “it’s Dad’s favorite meal!”), all because Jake couldn’t shake the evening free from his young family. The moment is standard in rom-com fare. Likewise, after Adam is treated to the close-up of Jake’s anatomy, his trust in Jane falters. While it’s nice to see the woman reassuring the man that she won’t hurt him like his ex-wife did, it’s still an utterly predictable plot line in conventional heterosexual relationship narratives.

In addition to boasting a story that telegraphs where it’s going from the start, It’s Complicated is visually flat and uninteresting to watch. Meyers moves her camera from long shots to medium shots to two-shots and back, with nothing to interrupt the monotony except occasional establishing shots of the décor-porn that motivates the movie: the beautiful bakery that Jane happily owns; the home she’s renovating so that she can have the kitchen and the view she always wanted; and the comfortable living room that looks as inhabited as a room in a Pottery Barn catalogue.

But that display of wealth is also part of this fantasy. While outside the movie theatre, the unemployment rate climbs ever higher and the stock market yo-yos, in Meyers’s fantasy land, money is no object, or certainly no cause for anxiety. Everyone is comfortable and successful, even though they don’t seem to work; they just have parties and fly across the country to hang out together in one gorgeous location after another, from the family homestead in Santa Barbara to bustling New York City, both photographed like eye-candy.

Meyers provides nothing for a bunch of good actors to do but stand in front of all the pretty scenery. Terrific Zoe Kazan is cast here as the youngest daughter in a role that doesn’t even begin to take advantage of her talent. The Jane/Jake kids are one long collective reaction shot, and play a single group objective: to get their parents back together. We’re supposed to believe that these adult children are still undone by their parents’ divorce ten years earlier, as though ending a marriage inevitably ruins a family.

Streep is wonderful in her scenes with Baldwin, simultaneously flattered by Jake’s renewed attention, and nostalgic herself for their younger lives. She and Baldwin trade Meyers’s repartée with fluid ease and lightness, not taking too seriously the outlandish situations she writes for them. But at the same time, the actors commit enough to the film’s project that their characters’ reignited relationship seems believable (which is, I'm afraid, the film’s real achievement).

As usual, Streep is lovely, creating a layered, complex character despite a script that provides no help. But although the story is Jane’s to tell, Jake upstages her at almost every turn. Baldwin flaunts his own middle-aged body in all its hairy heaviness, relaxed and matter-of-fact when he gets naked with his ex-wife. Jane, by contrast, is at first unwilling to stand naked in front of him because, she says, a body looks different when it’s upright, when everything “falls.”

While Jane hesitates to exhibit the toll time has taken on her flesh, Jake’s physical aging doesn’t bother him at all. Jake is generous with Jane’s body-shyness, but their scenes together really just underline that men maintain their sexual power even when their bodies begin to decline, while women, in their own eyes and the eyes of most men, emphatically do not. Seeing Jake in all his hirsute glory, you have to wonder what his lissome young wife sees in him.

Only Streep’s presence makes It’s Complicated slightly more than a middle-aged woman’s revenge fantasy in which the philandering husband gets his comeuppance. In her hands, Jane is a late-middle-aged woman with agency, and her delight in a situation that seems unrealistic even to her makes watching her escapades entertaining. Streep’s wink and nod to the viewer asks us to just go with this insanity, as she’s clearly chosen to do. She asks us to indulge the idea that middle-aged wealthy women can indeed resurrect themselves as sexual and desirable, despite all cultural interdictions and predictions to the contrary.

What’s the moral of the story here? According to Meyers, Jane’s rather shrewish friends were right. They tell her at the beginning of the story that if she doesn’t have sex, her vagina will close up and that her labial lips will grow back together. They tell her that she needs semen to be stimulated—even, in their overstatement, to be kept alive—and indeed, even the cooks in her bakery comment on her “glow” after Jane begins her affair with Jake. In the scenes in which Jane reports her escapades to her friends and seeks their advice, the women act and speak like teenagers instead of mature 50- or 60-somethings who might help one another see their lives through a different set of values, rather than whether they have boyfriends or not.

But this is Nancy Meyers’s land, and in the world she creates, absolutely the only thing that’s really complicated is getting Jane that view of the ocean from her house’s new addition. Would that everyone had such problems.

The Feminist Spectator

Monday, February 01, 2010

Up in the Air

[Spoiler alert! This post is written assuming that readers will have seen the film, or won’t mind learning key plot points. Enjoy—the FS]

Many of the December and January holiday season’s most popular films seemed strangely woman-centered, or perhaps just old stories suddenly told from what seems to be a woman’s perspective. In Up in the Air, for example, George Clooney’s character finds himself in the gender-reversed position of being unceremoniously left behind when a happy affair turns serious on only one side of the equation. And in It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep plays a late-middle-aged woman with surprising agency, suddenly faced with the choice to revive her relationship with the husband she divorced 10 years before or begin a romance with a soft-spoken architect who’s having difficulty getting over his own two-year-old divorce. But in both cases, films that at first appear progressive about gender reveal a disappointing conservatism that qualifies their viewing pleasures. I’ll save It’s Complicated for next time.

Ryan Bingham, Clooney’s debonair, proudly commitment-free corporate frequent-flyer in Up in the Air, travels the country visiting downsizing companies too timid to fire their own employees. With a prepared script tucked under his arm, Bingham delivers to the newly pink-slipped useless pabulum about turning their “career transformations” into opportunities to follow long-deferred dreams. He moves through strangers’ lives bringing huge consequences for them and none for him.

Bingham appears in each faceless corporate environment with the same stack of bunk generated by his own company—professionals at “career transitions”—breezing into and out of lives more profoundly and less happily changed than he’s willing to admit. Yet part of what makes Bingham (as Clooney conceives him) appealing is his faith in his lines; he couldn’t keep doing his job if he didn’t believe at least partially in what he says to those he fires.

Director Jason Reitman (Juno), in his carefully and somehow compassionately conceived scenes of Ryan’s summary execution of devastated employees, clarifies that very few of his “victims” can actually hear Ryan’s pep talk. Many of the poor folks in these scenes are apparently real unemployed people, hired (I hope) as extras for a day or two to re-enact with Clooney their experiences losing their own positions. J.K. Simmons (a Reitman regular late of Juno)—the only obvious actor in these sad vignettes—plays the only character who actually takes Bingham’s message to heart. You can see him thinking through Bingham’s suggestion that he’s now free to follow artistic dreams he set aside when he compromised his goals for corporate security. Though a light of relief and real gratitude goes on in the man's eyes, he’s the exception; most of the others exhibit only devastation and terror when Bingham delivers the news.

Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is the catalyst for Bingham’s own unwitting transformation. As the new kid in their career transitions firm, she looks at the bottom line and suggests that the company is wasting money flying people like Bingham all over the country to do a job that could be accomplished much more cheaply via the internet. She suggests that the corporation’s firing squad be grounded. But Bingham’s boss, Craig (played as a cold-hearted capitalist by Jason Bateman, even more resigned and slimy here than he is in Juno), insists that she accompany Bingham on one of his trips, so that she’ll understand what Bingham sees as his job’s human factor. The thought of Keener’s company on the road horrifies Bingham, and she’s not much happier. Their odd-couple-esque road trip—through which, naturally, then come to respect and enjoy one another—provides the film’s narrative core.

In a breezy montage, Bingham shows Keener the ropes of expedient, efficient air travel. The camera captures close-ups of the in-line skate wheels on Bingham’s suitcase pivoting smoothly against the hard floors of look-alike airports, and records Bingham demonstrating how he can tell which security checkpoint lines will move fastest. For all her touted corporate time-saving savvy, Keener proves a loser at light travel. Bingham’s packing tutorial is the first step in rebalancing the power between them.

When he teaches her how to do his job, the stakes increase. Bingham is a well-oiled firing machine, whose years of experience have honed his ability to deliver the bad news quickly and what he can’t help but believe will be painlessly. While he adjusts his smile to exude warmth and sympathy as they meet soon-to-be former employees across a table, Keener can’t arrange her face and only looks nauseous and embarrassed. One of the women they fire tells them she’s going to jump off a bridge, which terrifies Keener. But Bingham reassures her that these are always idle threats, as though hearing people threaten suicide is an unavoidable and regular downside of his job.

On one of his last solo trips before Keener tags along, Bingham meets a woman executive—named only “Alex,” a masculinized nickname for a beautiful, sophisticated woman (played by the superb Vera Farmiga)—who matches his lust for travel and his comfort with the pleasures of the road. They fling their hotel and rental car loyalty cards on their bar table, matching and seeing one another like card players in a poker game. Bingham and Alex begin an affair, consulting their travel schedules to arrange future meetings. They’re well-matched physically and, it seems, emotionally; Farmiga and Clooney’s on-screen relationship is rich with good humor and chemistry.

In one of the film’s most effecting scenes, Keener’s boyfriend dumps her while she’s on the road with Bingham, so he and Alex help the young woman nurse her wounds in their hotel's bar. They dispense generous advice, but while Bingham casually boasts his antipathy for long-term commitments and kids, Alex waxes philosophical about what she wants in a man and her desire for children. This sly red herring leads you to anticipate a more conventional crisis between the leading couple, which makes the film’s surprise ending even more effective.

The bar room rap scene also demonstrates Bingham’s and Alex’s real humanity. They handle Keener gently without condescending to her, and she lets go of the uptight corporate hotshot role she’s been trying to play. The trio crash the hotel’s convention party by stealing attendee badges—Keener’s reads “Jennifer Lee,” and she’s not Asian American—and soaking up free drinks, food, and swag. The sweet and goofy party scene is also rather sad, because this evening of carousing at other people’s conferences obviously represents a good time for Bingham. Reitman does a lovely job modulating the film’s emotional tone, resisting the temptation to pity Bingham but clearly illustrating that his unencumbered life can be empty as well as liberating.

Bingham begins breaking his own rules as he becomes more and more attached to Alex. In his down time, Bingham supplements his career as a corporate ax-wielder by leading seminars that teach people how to lighten their emotional and material loads. He delivers a motivational speech that’s really a pat little talk about “what’s in your backpack,” which encourages his audience to unburden themselves not only of material possessions, but of entanglements with other people that keep them from enjoying their deserved freedom.

Thanks to Clooney’s innate, boyish charm, these speeches avoid their potentially smarmy masculine arrogance. In Clooney’s interpretation, Bingham preaches his credo not because he’s misanthropic, but because traveling light works for him and offers a convenient, rational, tidy belief system. All the guy wants is a good suitcase and enough frequent flyer miles to join the “10 Million Miles Club,” which entitles members to meet a pilot and fly anywhere in the world for free. Bingham’s only life goal is to accumulate more and more miles (an obvious metaphor for his flight from commitment). A heavy backpack would only hold him down.

Alex foils his plans. Bingham finds himself lonely without her, and notices, the few times he returns to his nearly empty, soulless condo in Omaha, his home base, that his life suddenly feels a bit too unencumbered. On a whim, he decides to attend his estranged sister’s wedding in Wisconsin, and invites Alex to come as his date. For some reason, she accepts, and they perform as a real couple in “real life” for the first time.

The family wedding scenes in Up in the Air offer a stark and sometimes calculated contrast to Bingham’s and Alex’s lives on the road. In the mid-West heartland, Bingham’s two sisters live simple lives with a lot less disposable income than their brother, whom they rarely see. The bride (Melanie Lynskey) and groom (Danny McBride) arrange the equivalent of a fire hall party after their church wedding, at which Alex and Ryan seem out of place, too sophisticated and worldly for the earthy northern Wisconsin surrounds (even though Ryan, after all, lives in Omaha; Alex, at least, is from Chicago).

When Ryan commits to attending the event, his sister asks him to collect photographs of a poster-board cut-out of the bride and groom situated against panoramic backgrounds in all the cities he visits. Ryan goes to some lengths collecting these pictures, assuming he’s doing his sister a unique favor. His self-importance deflates when he arrives at the fire hall, photos in hand, and is told to tack them on a large map of the U.S. that’s already covered with images. His family, it seems, doesn’t need him as much as Ryan imagines. A whole community supports them, decorating their party with pictures of the honeymoon they can't afford to take.

Which is part of Up in the Air’s point and its problem. The “flyover states” (that deprecating label from the political lexicon) appear mythologized once again as the place where people are simple and authentic, where family is cherished and relationships are built on loyalty and trust regardless of material means. Reitman films the wedding ceremony and party scenes with only a touch of comic condescension, since his goal is to portray Ryan’s new ambivalence when he compares his own choices to his family’s. Lost in the soft-focus filmmaking of these scenes is any critique of those family values as shopworn and exclusive. Up in the Air winds up promoting, like most movies, the conventional norm of white middle-class married heterosexuality as the benchmark of happiness.

Ryan usually prizes his individuality, boasting his rugged solitude. But when he sees his long-neglected family participating faithfully in the illusions of married fairy tales, instead of hightailing it back to the airport, he somehow realizes what he’s been missing. And that’s when the film gets conservative. Ryan starts choking on his “what’s in your backpack” speech, and shortly after his weekend with Alex at the wedding, decides to take his own plunge.

On a whim, Bingham changes his flight plan and arrives breathlessly at Alex’s Chicago brownstone, wearing Clooney’s trademark seductive grin and his aw-shucks stance. But when Alex throws open the door, he sees behind her children running up and down the stairs, and hears a male voice asking his “honey” who’s at the door. Answering that it’s “just someone who’s lost,” Alex’s face freezes in horror as she shakes her head at Bingham, wordlessly beseeching him to leave. Clooney registers in an instance how badly he’s misinterpreted Alex’s affections. He’s come to deliver himself like a prize, when instead, Alex chose something from behind another door a long time ago.

When she calls Bingham on her cell phone from a car in an empty parking garage, Alex demands that he explain his surprise appearance. In a hurt, wondering tone more familiar coming from jilted women, Bingham asks Alex what he means to her, and she responds, “A parenthesis.” Bingham has simply been an interruption in her life’s sentence, an afterthought, an addition that doesn’t really change its direction or flow.

Bingham swallows his devastation and goes on to achieve his former goal, suddenly finding a pilot sliding into the seat next to him on the plane to welcome him to the “10 Million Mile Club.” The hollow moment isn’t even bittersweet for Bingham; he’s mortified that this has been his aspiration, that he focused his energies on this empty meeting between himself and a man who’s just a corporate suit commanding a flying machine, to whom Bingham really has nothing to say. He has enough miles to go anywhere, and finds there’s really no where he wants to go. He books his sister and her new husband on a round-the-world trip, and just keeps packing his own “Travel Pro” to go off to his job letting people go.

The once heartless young Keener gets her own wake-up call when the woman they fired really does jump off a bridge. Keener leaves to find redemption in San Francisco at a new, more socially responsible firm. For Bingham, the ex-employee’s suicide is only a pin-prick in his rock-solid belief his profession is just. He’s left with his suitcase and a world that’s his oyster, one for which he’s entirely lost his appetite.

While Up in the Air begins as a refreshingly anti-marriage story of a man who nonetheless has a great deal of compassion for other people, it ends as a morality tale about the lonely individual who’s failed to commit to the community. Even in a movie as smart as this, in which the characters talk in full sentences and seem to have real ideas and feelings, living outside of married domesticity just can’t be imagined or sustained. The film's only progressive note is the gender-reversal that leaves Bingham alone at the end, while Alex has gotten just what she wanted—a friendly diversion from a real life that suits her just fine.

Thankfully, Up in the Air doesn’t moralize about Alex’s infidelity. The film makes Bingham appear foolish for investing in the happily ever after fairy tale against all his best wry instincts. The excellent cast helps make these characters compelling and complex. Clooney is terrific as the cavalier but emotionally acute Bingham, and Farmiga plays Alex with a great deal of controlled, cautious warmth behind her gorgeous, capable demeanor. Anna Kendrick, as Keener, brings a light comic touch as well as real depth to a character that seems at first just a heartless corporate cog. Her own awakening to what she will and won’t compromise for professional success nicely balances Bingham’s and Alex’s choices, and Kendrick plays the character’s emotional shifts beautifully.

For all its disappointing conservatism, Up in the Air is a grown-up, intelligent movie, especially compared to the puerile, adolescent situations concocted in Nancy Meyer’s fluff film, It’s Complicated. Up in the Air manages to be thoughtful and compassionate, rueful about choices made by a man who’s fully middle-aged and realizes he might have placed his faith in exactly the wrong things.

I only wish he knew he had more options.

The Feminist Spectator