Disliking Unlikable Characters

I finally got around to seeing Jason Reitman’s Oscarbait movie, Up In The Air, and found it to be a very good film.  It’s a honed, well-crafted picture that nary wastes a line of dialogue or a dry moment of humor.  Reitman really is something; he’s three movies in and all of them have been incredibly self-assured pieces that are shown through the eyes of our main characters, something a lot of vets never really come to learn.  However, this is an unfortunate skill in a film such as Up In The Air, because each of the main characters is a giant fucking douchebag.

I was amazed at how little admiration I had for any of the main characters.  As in, none at all.  At no point in this film did I care a bit about anything that happened to the principals.  Be it happy, sad, horrible, boning-destroying bacterial diseases, getting a new puppy…none of it mattered.  Usually when one makes a film, the protagonist is someone you can rally behind, so that when he or she wins the big game, aces the test, or gets their revenge, you can cheer and root them on and feel good about yourself through that character.  “They achieved their goal,” you’d hypothetically say, “so maybe I can go achieve mine!”  It’s a wonderful lark, these movies.

There are anti-heroes to front movies and there are unlikeable characters who find some sort of validation as the film moves, but I’ve never been so outwardly disgusted by a protagonist.  The protagonist, Ryan Bingham (as played by George Clooney) is such a self-assured smarmy dick that it’s barely tolerable.  His biggest personal goals are all so excessively materialistic (10 million air miles wheeee!!), his views on people are so alarmingly reprehensible, and the job he relishes is that of laying thousands of people off, people who actually have values and a beating heart.  Haven’t we been instructed by films like Fight Club to realize how worthless this entire pursuit is, and how hateable such a pursuit is?  Bingham is his fucking khakis, and he loves every second of it.

Without George Clooney in the main role of Ryan Bingham, I don’t know if this movie ever even gets made.  What upsets me is that this film is carried by the affable charm of George Clooney, but that’s a commodity that comes with the casting; not anything earned on screen.  I simply cannot reconcile how a man so charming could come out of a life like this; there’s no way Ryan Bingham does the job he does, lives the life he lives, believes what he does and comes out the other end as George Clooney.  Can’t happen.  There’s too much time for let down, for bitterness, loneliness, that I refuse to believe that his “empty your life backpack so it’s essentially just you and that same sad-ass back pack” schtick survives the 30 or so years until he’s forced to question it because his foil in a dress shows up.

Ah, and what a foil she is.  Somehow, we have someone equally as despicable to loathe in Vera Farmiga’s Alex Goran, possibly even moreso!  Beyond the fact that she’s just like Bingham, except “with a vagina,” she is also incredibly amoral throughout the story with no real conscience ever coming in to play.  While Bingham is misguided in his views of life, she is straight-up dastardly, living a selfish lie, playing with fire where ever she goes, home or otherwise.

There is a much-discussed scene (pictured above) where the two sit at a table and throw down their plastic cards and marvel at it.  In the outstanding film American Psycho, we watched a similar discussion of characters dissecting their business cards, trying to find the perfect one and, with it, rule the roost.  The scene works so well because of how ridiculous it is (Christian Bale’s reaction to the final card is priceless), showing actual physical pain over such a worthless material good (and the kicker is that they all look nearly identical).  In this movie, however, with its misguided views on…everything, it’s an equivalent to a handjob.  This isn’t charming; it’s disturbing.

Anna Kendrick gets a pass because I have a huge crush on her, which, again, is why this movie works.  All these people are assholes but they’re inherently likable so the movie sorta works.  It’s a parlor trick less than a real movie.  And I’m sure there are people who are this slick and this charismatic who do these jobs and live this life…but that doesn’t mean I have to have any sympathy for them.  I could admire them, much like the film that Reitman created.  It’s polished, slick, very successful in what it tries to accomplish, uses a moving camera to visually propel the story forward in the same way its characters refuse to look back and feel an ounce of remorse, and a very, very solid script.  It’s very respectable.

Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

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