Your Weekly Reader

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Scene I Hate

I saw Up in the Air last night, and by and large I really liked it. It's a movie about grownups, made for grownups. It’s smart and funny, and it reminds you of what a good actor George Clooney can be when he's not trying so hard.

But late in the movie comes The Scene I Hate. If you haven't seen the movie, you should stop now, because ahead thar be spoilers. If you have seen the movie, or don't plan to, or don't mind being spoiled, read on.

The Scene is a movie trope, like the slow clap, or the stalker – I mean romantic lead – showing up in time to stop the wedding. Here, we have a hero who has a Philosophy of Life, which is part of his character, and which he has related to other characters throughout the movie. Late in the plot, he has the opportunity to relate his Philosophy to his biggest and bestest audience yet -- in this case, at a star-studded seminar in Las Vegas. Throughout the course of the film, though, things have happened that make him unsure of him Philosophy of Life. He gets to the podium and sees packed house of expectant faces. He begins to speak... and then ... he has an Epiphany. He can't go on. He leaves the stage to gasps, and perhaps consternation from his hosts. He rushes to his car/plane/horse, newly enlightened, and speeds to the side of his One True Love, or The Child Who is Waiting, or perhaps His Destiny. Under the worst of circumstances, the music swells.

Here's the thing. I'm all for epiphanies, and recognize their value in dramatic structure. In fact, the word has its origin in the revelations of Greek drama. But this scene is inherently false. You never have your epiphany on stage in front of hundreds of people. Unless that epiphany is, "Holy crap, I hate being on stage in front of hundreds of people." In this movie, in particular, there is a scene right before the epiphany, where the character is considering the seminar to come. It is a perfect moment for him to have his reversal, and one that can still have dramatic value without being ridiculous. Worse, up to now, the movie hasn't been overly dramatic. There have been dramatic moments, but they have been natural progressions of the story. We don't need, or want, the Big Moment, especially when it is so obviously tacked-on.

Here's the other thing. One of the reasons we like the character, be it Clooney in this movie or a similar character in another movie, is that was can count on them to get through the speech at the seminar. Or at least to cancel in a timely fashion. We like them because they don't flake out and pursue their Destiny or One True Love without turning off the gas and locking the front door. I'm surrounded with people and their petty epiphanies, and I much prefer those who finish their work on deadline and pay on schedule.

There is a redeeming grace to this scene, as my viewing companion pointed out, and that is that we don't get the Big Speech. The one that begins, "I can't lie to you. I used to believe blah blah blah, but now my eyes are open." The one that ends with stunned silence. Followed by the inevitable Slow Clap.

There's a lot to like about Up in the Air, and fortunately the Epiphany doesn't kill it. But it does inject an unnecessary false note in a movie that, until then, has seemed pretty truthful. And if you're me, it makes you wince, because it's The Scene I Hate.