11/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Corporate Culture on Trial in Toronto

Some things at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which kicked off September 10th, remain unchanged. As always, the fest is insanely front-loaded; you practically turn wall-eyed wanting to sprint for three competing morning films: A Serious Man from the Coen bros, much ballyhooed An Education, and Telluride triumph Up in the Air. And let's not forget Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel.

Other things change. No more mister-nice-guy around here. The egalitarian protocol so beloved of journalists -- which contrasts with the impenetrable ranking system that makes Cannes an exercise in humiliation -- has taken a serious hit at this biggest of North American fests. Those Journos not "prioritized" were forced to line up in halls, down stairs, and out in the street to attend the screening of Up in the Air. Yes, we all got in, but, well, it's the spirit of the thing.

Having skipped last year to tub thump my latest novel, I was also taken aback by the current corporate embrace of TIFF. Screenings are now prefaced by commercials for everything ranging from Cadillacs to Blackberries. Well, guess they need the bucks for the new Bell Lighthouse home for the festival, promised for next year.

It's a tad ironic, though, in that one of the more robust themes to emerge in the fest's early outings is corporate malfeasance. One such film is Steven Soderbergh's The Informant, toplined by a chubbed-up Matt Damon as a whacko whistle-blower determined to expose his company's price fixing scheme with Japan. The film offers a zany free-associative voice-over by Damon and a sprightly score, complete with a kazoo, by Marvin Hamlish. But the motives of Damon's character remain opaque and stem more from Mitty-esque fantasy than a reformer's zeal. In a sense, The Informant is Soderbergh's business world sequel to The Girlfriend Experience, depicting a monolithic world in which there's nothing that's not for sale.

Similarly themed, Up in the Air, adapted from the novel by Walter Kirn and directed by Jason Reitman ("Juno"), is that rare hybrid: a crowd pleaser studded with zingy dialogue that also looks at serious issues, namely, the human misery beyond the statistics of downsizing in America. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a permanent bachelor who crisscrosses the nation firing people for a living. His dream? To amass ten million frequent flyer miles. Ryan meets his match in Vera Farmiga's equally detached Alex, who like him gets turned on by upgrades -- "Think of me as yourself, only with a vagina." But the arrival in his company of Nathalie, a B School whiz who determines it's more cost effective to fire people by video, becomes a game-changer for Ryan. Even Mr. Cool himself blanches at her term "termination engineer."

Up in the Air flirts with slickness, especially toward the end, and there's one particular plot hole you could drive a truck through. Yet it bracingly takes a hatchet to the yes-men who get paid to do the corporations' dirty work. More, it skewers the vapid lifestyle of an executive flunky such as Ryan, who delivers motivational lectures on the advantages of living lite and shedding all responsibility towards others. In a sense, the film's an indictment of American frontier individualism pushed to an ugly and untenable extreme. Reitman also drolly captures the sleek generic look of Admiral's Club lounges and plush conference rooms so you all but smell the canned air and values.

One more notable change at TIFF: the journos' ensorcellement with digital technology. At one screening yesterday, there were as many people consulting blackberries and i-Phones than looking at the big screen. Maybe because the flick was about medieval German nuns. More about that tomorrow and the other trend emerging here: the celebration of powerful women.