''Up in the Air'' - writer/director Jason Reitman's smart, funny, flawed, thoroughly entertaining feature film about a high-flying corporate downsizer - was nominated for six Academy Awards. But, as we saw the other night, it won not a one, making one of the most engaging travel-themed movies of recent years an also-ran.
Ah, well, that's show-biz, you might say. And it is. Overwhelmed by the box office success of "Avatar' and undercut by the edgy drama of "The Hurt Locker,'' "Up in the Air'' was strictly earth-bound at the Oscars. There were no "I'd like to thank the Academy'' acceptance speeches for Reitman, his star George Clooney or his superb co-stars, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick.
Too bad, really, because the movie is good. True, it veers from the flight plan and bogs down in convention toward the end, with its surge of misty family values. But Reitman's script captures perfectly the anonymity and loneliness of a life spent on airplanes - even a life softened by the multitude of travel perks acquired through nonstop work by Ryan Bingham, the character brought to life in Clooney's pitch-perfect portrayal. I don't know if anyone in real life has ever rolled up 10 million frequent flier miles, as Bingham does, but it's a clever storytelling device in reel-life.
"Up in the Air,'' released late last year, started 2010 as one of the most talked-about, popular movies. But as the weeks rolled by, something of a backlash developed: The film is too slick, just a Hollywood star vehicle for Clooney, just an apology for heartless corporate America. (A good accounting of the critical backlash - and an effective rebuttal to many of the criticisms - was posted today on nytimes.com by Ross Douthat in his blog.) Like Douthat, I don't find the casting of actual, laid-off workers in the movie exploitive; their presence prompts Bingham to examine his own life, and find it as empty as his road-warrior suitcase.
When I was a movie critic at California's San Francisco Examiner, I was paid for going to the movies. For some of them, I had to be paid, or I wouldn't have been there. Not to mention that some studio screenings for critics started as early as 9 a.m. and, as reviewers, we were honor-bound to stay to the bitter end of even the worst, most formulaic flicks. Had I seen it back in the day, "Up in the Air'' would have been a breath of fresh air - as it is now.
Watching the Academy Awards show, it was disappointing to see "Up in the Air'' lose altitude. But there was at least one writer/director who felt more pain than Reitman on Oscar night.
That would be James Cameron, who made the highest-grossing movie of all time in "Avatar'' and still failed to win any of the big Academy Awards. "The Hurt Locker'' gave Academy voters the ideal opportunity to stick it to Cameron - who is unpopular in Hollywood for - get this - alleged arrogance and egotism - by selecting a movie directed by his ex-wife, Katherine Bigelow, as best picture, look pro-woman by picking the talented Bigelow as best director, and appear to support U.S. troops by honoring a war movie - even though Hollywood furiously opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Politically correct and vengeful at the same time! Perfect!
As for "Up in the Air,'' it just came out on DVD. Time for a second look and, I hope, a second chance for this ultimately overlooked movie.