But let me digress a little: I am currently attempting to write the second draft of a screenplay. It's like giving birth to a cactus. I read a couple of books; mostly they made me feel suicidal. They tell you what has to happen on page 30, on page 60 and on page 90 if you want to succeed as a screenwriter. There have to be plot points and plot turns and turns within the turns, with exacting precision, as if you were building a time bomb. One ghastly book by Syd Field holds the script of Titanic to be the gold standard in movie writing (cue me tearing my hair out in despair). The other screenwriting bible, Story, is slightly more useful but beats me if I remember anything this annoying, pretentious man commands me to do. You can get the book for $30 or take the 3 day course for $700 and they are word by word exactly the same. You tell me.
To judge from some Hollywood movies I've seen lately, screenwriters take this advice to heart. In a good movie, the turns happen organically, they shake you up emotionally, but you don't see them coming round the bend, and you can't stick a flag in them and yell PLOT POINT!
Up in the Air is a good example of a movie where you can actually pinpoint the plot turns, they are so forced. If you suspend your disbelief for a fraction of a second, nothing that happens is believable. The more I think about it, the more I feel duped.
How come a movie like Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon has total plot, but does not feel contrived? It feels like a mystery. The characters are coherent in themselves (crazy as bats, but coherent). Or the Dardennes' L'Enfant. A young, reckless father wants to sell his baby boy for money. Extreme, but nothing that happens in this movie is not believable.
Meanwhile, stateside, the absurdities pile on, with no regard to the intelligence of the audience. Why are we so fake in America?
If you intend to see Up in the Air, I'm warning you, here comes my list of absurdities, aka major spoiler alert:
1. Clooney lives in Omaha and works for a corporation. This is a stretch, 'cause Everyman he ain't. He has been good as a dutiful worker in movies like Syriana and Michael Clayton, but there he was CIA spy and New York lawyer, not schmo from Omaha.
2. He fires people for a living. These kinds of corporations better exist in real life.
3. He is also a motivational speaker. This could be a satyrical point if the movie had bothered to set it up as such. As it is, I never understood what he motivates people about. He seems to be telling them to dispossess themselves from all their relationships. This is not believable.
4. This is a man who'd rather endure the torture of modern flying than be at home in Omaha. Granted, it's Omaha, and he flies business and gets all the preferential shortcuts, but still, the movie never mentions the unease of flying, the fear of death. I know a lot of people fly without it (how, it's beyond me) but there is something too perfect about his complacency at living in airport and hotel Genericland, which, as far as I'm concerned, is Hell. I find it hard to believe that it is not horrifying to him, even for a second.
5. As he waits in an executive lounge, Clooney meets Vera Farmiga, another million mile traveler. I lost heart with the film in this scene. The dialogue is supposed to ricochet like Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant's in His Girl Friday, but it is actually a leaden pissing match about car rental companies and frequent flyer programs. It could be funnier if the characters were allowed to show nuance. But it seems that in American films everything is so streamlined and efficient that there is no time for gesture anymore. Everything is broad strokes (see Brothers).
5. A young tyro, played by Sarah Kendrick, is hired to streamline the firing process, by doing it via teleconference. This girl is going to change the ways of an entire company just because Jason Bateman took a shine to her. Right.
Clooney's character balks, because that means he will have to stay home. He is horrified by the inhumanity of the new process. Hence, Bateman decides that Clooney needs to show Kendrick the ropes and take her with him on his travels. This is a typical premise of romantic comedy. Fine.
6. But then she shows up at the airport with a huge, cumbersome bag, looking ridiculous. Hell, nowadays everybody and their mother, no matter how unhip, understands and enjoys (and actually has no choice, given the airline restrictions) the glories of compact roller bags. But this is a pretext for a silly scene where Clooney buys her a bag in the airport and throws her pillow and her neck pillow in the trash.
7. Kendrick gets on Clooney's case about his stubborn bachelordom. They just met. They are uneasy colleagues. Yet she butts in too much. She gets too personal, and she is supposed to be a bit of a cold fish. Doesn't make sense.
8. Clooney falls in love (yay!) with Farmiga. He starts warming up to the joys of human company. He invites her to his sister's wedding, where of course the groom gets to have cold feet the day of, and Clooney must save the day. BS.
The movie takes a spin into the redemption of Clooney in which crazy shit starts happening just because he needs to redeem himself. He writes a letter of recommendation for Kendrick and I'll be damned if I know how he knew where to send it.
9. Then, any movie that casts Sam Elliott as an American Airlines pilot has got to be kidding me. I'm never flying American again.
10. Clooney goes looking for Farmiga only to find out the awful truth, that she has been playing by the rules of the road, like a man. At first I actually liked this turn, because it really felt shocking. But thinking about it, this woman, who seemed no nonsense and honest, and never showed any intimation of being anything but solid and mature, has been lying to him the entire time and did not at any point say to him, listen pal, I have a life back in Chicago but I am lonely on the road, let's have a fabulous affair while it lasts. She is a horrible liar. Why?