24 January 2010

The Twin Dilemma

January is traditionally a dreary month in the cinematic calendar, and you could say it's been a bit one note, falling back on the traditional tropes of vampire films, music biopics and post-apocalypse films. Right at the end of the month, we have two romantic comedies, Up in the Air and All About Steve. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.


Up in the Air is obviously not to be confused with Pixar's Up, in a title-related oversight that's only surpassed by last year giving us post-apocalyptic animation 9 and musical luvvie-fest Nine. Semantics aside, Up in the Air is all about Ryan Bingham, a specialist contracted by companies to fly around America firing their employees for them. This jet-setting lifestyle is without strings or attachments, and that's just the way Ryan likes it. His life is disrupted by the arrival of Natalie, who threatens to ground him with her more cost-effective proposal for Ryan's company. Ryan aims to prove that a personal touch is needed by taking Natalie with him as he works, despite lacking anything close to a personal connection himself.

Jason Reitman's latest is closer to Thank You For Smoking than to Juno, covering similar ground with George Clooney's Ryan being a middle-aged man who has problems relating to his relatives because of his job. Up in the Air is a considerably lighter film, veering towards romantic comedy rather than delivering harsh satire. Although my previous exasperation with the worst shortcuts of the genre have been well-documented, I found there was a lot to enjoy in this.

Clooney isn't really straying outside of his comfort zone as an actor to play Ryan, but then he's played enough oddballs and idiots in recent films to warrant a return to his tried and tested formula. The last time he was playing "typical Clooney", he was an animated fox, so I'll cut the guy a break. He is the only cast-member of Batman & Robin I've forgiven to date. Besides which, it's the script that makes Ryan such a sympathetic character rather than the performance.

In fairness, I can't go without mentioning Anna Kendrick's excellent performance as Natalie for one major reason. It was bugging me all the way through because I recognised Kendrick from something else. I gave her IMDB a look, and it turns out she's been slumming it as a supporting character in the Twilight films! One of the really superfluous characters who exists to praise Bella! And yet she can give performances like this!

My incredulity at this really knows no bounds, but suffice it to say that she's one of the few performers in Twilight who I actually rate, and she's brilliant in this. Her chemistry with Clooney is totally platonic, and really complements the sparkling and witty script.

Vera Farmiga and Jason Bateman are on fine form too, and the film enjoys the traditional 20% extra quotient of awesomeness that I award any film for featuring Sam Elliot. The man's a legend, and I have no problem with the fact that he seems to be channel that scene he had with Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski in this.

On top of the central character study of Ryan though, there's a motif around what it is to lose your job. Ryan goes from place to place firing people, with Reitman casting people who had actually lost their jobs as the unfortunate victims of Ryan's schtick. And then of course Ryan is in danger of becoming obsolete himself if Natalie's proposal is accepted by his bosses.

In this economy, it's a particularly timely subject for a film. Although it's just not practical to do what Clooney does and embark on an affair with Vera Farmiga, the underlying message is that your job shouldn't define who you are as a person. It's not just grasping at the heartstrings like your bog-standard romcom- it's actually really profound. Maybe my personal enjoyment of the film is down to having lost two jobs during the recession, which they're now saying is over, but it's like Vietnam or a particularly timely joke- you had to be there. That aside, it is still a very well-crafted film.

Rarely predictable and highly enjoyable, Up in the Air is that elusive beast that I'll always praise whenever it appears- a romcom that doesn't glamorise deplorable characters or resort to cookie-cutter formula, and instead tells an enjoyable story. Clooney's playing a character whose line of work is becoming obsolete, but in real life, he's continuing to pick interesting projects like this one instead of resting on his laurels. Despite an utterly schmaltzy last line that made me feel physically sick for a couple of minutes, this is a satisfying and likable romantic comedy.

Now, what to say on the subject of All About Steve? It follows Mary Horowitz, a relentlessly twee crossword constructor who lives with her long-suffering parents while her flat is being fumigated. They set their daughter up on a blind date with Steve, a news cameraman who is frequently on the road. When Steve tries to let Mary down gently, she misreads the signs and sets out across country to er... stalk him. Yeah, really. Hilarity ensues, I say with the largest dollop of irony your web browser can support.

Tonally, it is all over the place. With its subject matter, I reckon that with the raw footage, an editing suite and some creepy music, even a monkey could transform it into a very passable horror film. Maybe reshoot all the scenes with Mary's parents so they're tied to a bed, Misery-style, everytime they appear. In trying to set up a message for individuality, what the writer has actually done is cast Sandra Bullock as an overbearing and unlikable woman.

More than that, there are two films at war with each other in All About Steve. There's the aforementioned horror film of Mary's character, mixed in with some element of genuinely funny satire of 24 hour rolling news culture. I wouldn't say a whole film around Thomas Haden-Church's conceited newsman would be funny, but I did laugh at some of the jokes involving him for the same reason I laugh at Charlie Brooker's Newswipe. What this film does is take two films that would be fairly mediocre and merge them into a gestalt of incredibly inventive rubbish.

Early on in the film, Mary 'hilariously' ponders whether brain cancer is better than a lobotomy, or vice versa, and for a while I was thinking I'd prefer both to watching any more of the film. I'd went in expecting to hate the film, come back here and make some Kermodian declaration that if I saw 10 films worse than All About Steve in 2010, I would quit reviewing.

Don't get me wrong, it is absolutely awful, but when I'm constantly complaining that romantic comedies have a cookie-cutter formula that means you can tell the ending of any given film just from watching the trailer, this is something different. It goes to absurd and asinine extremes to be different, but I can't deny it's different.

It circumvents "so bad, it's good" and settles back in "bad" territory again, but there's something incredibly entertaining to watch about that. I can't really fault the performances so much as the writing, and although this may just be me finally having snapped, I have to make this statement- this film is the reason why I go to the cinema.

Let me put it this way, to conclude- All About Steve is like the dark twin of Up in the Air. Reitman's film subverts the traditional romcom template with likable characters and relatable situations. This film does it with cartoonishly abhorrent characters and a set piece where some deaf children fall down a mineshaft at a funfair. Reitman's film is great, and All About Steve is just awful. But my God, it's trying.

It's a one star out of five film, make no mistake, but it did make me laugh, which was way more than I was expecting. For sheer innovation of awfulness, and the fact that it's actually challenging me to write objectively about a film I really ought to hate with every iota of my being, I have to give some small acclaim. Very small. Really, don't pay to see this.


You're probably all horribly confused now, but that's why this post is named for a similarly rubbish Doctor Who story from 1984. Basically, if you want an unequivocally well made and well judged romcom, see Up in the Air. If you want to challenge yourself a little more, join the ranks of the four or so people in the UK who've been to see All About Steve. And if you've seen either, why not share your comments below?

Given the absolute chaos of advertising that seems to be going on with The Lovely Bones, I have no idea if that's out this Friday or next month. That aside, the next trips to the cinema are likely to cover Ninja Assassin, Precious and/or Edge of Darkness.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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