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Existential angst gets a feel-good spin

These are feel-bad times in Western economies, and two high-profile movies just released in the United States (due here next year) can be commended for reflecting this.

In Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a chilly figure whose job is to fly around the US as an industrial executioner, sacking employees at firms that are downsizing or, as the cute euphemism has it, ‘right-sizing”.

Equally tuned to the current mood is Everybody’s Fine, starring Robert De Niro as a seriously ill widower who, when his children renege on their promises to visit him for Christmas, summons his dwindling energies for a bus tour to their doorsteps.

Although both films have good jokes in them, they are fundamentally bleak case studies of alienation. Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, is emotionally cut off from the lives of his family and the dozens he condemns to unemployment each day. He rejects even the idea of home, living by preference in executive-upgrade rooms at airport hotels, between which he moves in rented cars and air-mile-swelling business-class cabins.

The main locations to which Everybody’s Fine (ironic title) takes De Niro’s Frank Goode (ironic name) are just as cold and soulless: a recession-deserted supermarket, a doctor’s surgery, a concrete underpass at midnight, an empty apartment, a hospital ward.

Goode, in common with Clooney’s character, suffers a crisis of isolation in an aircraft miles above the Earth.

No potential moviegoer, though, would get much sense of the downbeat atmosphere of these pieces from the advertising. Ads for Everybody’s Fine show De Niro grinning wackily, surrounded by young actors playing happy families, with a Christmas tree in the background. Large quotes from little-known Kansas radio stations proclaim this to be the ‘must-see, feel-good seasonal movie!”

In a similar strategy the trailers for Up in the Air hint strongly at a rom-com love triangle, a sort of frequent-flyer rewrite of Brief Encounter: those who buy tickets will probably be surprised by the exact shape of the leading man’s relationships with the characters played by Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. A journalist planning a feature on the film told me the publicists were keen to ‘play down the unemployment angle”, although the plot’s most original element is a man whose job is taking away jobs.

I appreciate that a poster quote reading ‘A brilliant study in existentialist despair — The Guardian” isn’t going to sell much popcorn, but Up in the Air and Everybody’s Fine are essentially being mis-sold, in a way to which cinema is becoming increasingly prone.

This year’s best film at the Oscars, Slumdog Millionaire, was also widely marketed as a feel-good movie, although its themes include extreme poverty, child slavery, marital cruelty, the subjugation of women and gang murder.

This cheeky misleading happens because of a panicked assumption among producers that, in bad times, audiences don’t want to be sent out feeling bad and so, rather unfairly, products that properly reflect the state of society are punished for it. But it’s not only in their deceptive publicity that De Niro’s and Clooney’s films represent the false optimism to which American show business is prone.

In both cases the final part — the ‘third act”, as screenwriters call it — imposes on the protagonists a process in which, like Scrooge, they are alerted to the errors in their personality and offered a chance to change. This pressure for redemption, reflecting the optimism and religiosity that run so deep in American culture, disfigures much of the nation’s entertainment.

It’s a common experience for sharp and intelligent films to move away from realism in the final reel, just as many Broadway dramas veer towards a reassuring resolution as the stagehands begin to crank the curtain for its final fall.

So writers and directors are forced to negotiate between realism and the commercial and psychological demand for sentimental neatness. And, when the PR department comes in, Everybody’s Fine has its implied question mark turned into an exclamation mark and the name of Up in the Air suddenly alludes not to moral ambiguity but a romantic cloud nine.

Another 2010 Oscar hopeful, The Lovely Bones, even manages a positive spin on the rape-murder of a teenage girl by transporting her to a CGI heaven from which she can help to solve her killing through posthumous sleuthing. It’s true that Alice Sebold’s novel contained this supernatural redemption, but the movie becomes even gloopier by playing down the savagery of the death.

Perhaps, if the publicists are really lucky, a reviewer somewhere will describe this story of a child slaughtered by a sex attacker as ‘the feel-good movie of the year”. —

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