The best math joke that will appear in a major Hollywood picture this year

Early in the just-released Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character reveals to a young coworker his dream of registering 10 million frequent flyer miles on American Airlines.  She responds dismissively, “Isn’t 10 million just a number?”

Clooney replies — with just the right weary exasperation — “Pi is just a number.”

It’s a good movie, by the way, better than I expected from the trailer.  It doesn’t try to do anything very hard and it possesses simple virtues:  good writing, good acting, good pacing.  Then again, almost every movie I see lacks at least one of these; so in this sense Up in the Air tried something hard after all.

By the way, I can no longer hear Clooney’s name without thinking of the recorded “Doors Closing” announcement on the DC Metro.  It really does sound exactly like a voice warning you, softly, robotically, and somehow wistfully, “George Clooney.”

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6 thoughts on “The best math joke that will appear in a major Hollywood picture this year

  1. I just saw Up in the air and agree that it was a good movie. I wonder how much American Airlines and Hilton paid for all that product placement…

  2. I have two different things to say about this film.

    First, the film was pretty good, but I thought it was a far cry from Oscar-buzz good. I’m afraid I will now be the guy who goes on about how much better the book was: I read the book when it came out in 2001. It had a cover with flying, crashing and burning businessmen which must have seemed droll until 9/11, after which it brought sales to a near-standstill. (I had this book in my backpack at a Canadian-American border crossing circa 2005, and purely because of the cover I got some goofy questions like “Are you a pilot?”) The adaptation of the book is extremely loose: essential points of plot and character are missing, whereas the most interesting principal character in the movie (the one played by Anna Kendrick) has been added. Moreover, the book has a dark undertone in the vein of Kafka and Ishiguro that makes the movie (which seems to view itself as a heavy-hitting drama) look like Mary Poppins in comparison. There’s no real tragedy at the end of the movie — Clooney’s character has (for reasons which are never made sufficiently clear; it is suggested that it is an extreme form of male non-commitment) chosen an unusual lifestyle which he seems uncertain whether or not he truly enjoys. Anna Kendrick’s character serves to show him that he can quit his job if he chooses at the cost of having to build a new life for himself almost from scratch. In the film he makes two rather half-hearted attempts to have a non-Airworld life, one romantically and one with his family. The first one fails (in a way which is both predictable and seems somewhat contrived), but the second one succeeds, suspiciously easily: his sisters welcome him back with open arms after years of neglect. Things are not so rosy for the main character of the novel.

    Second, I think the script for the movie was probably written by someone with a mathematical background (I haven’t yet tried to check up on this). Aside from the mathematically witty 10^7/Pi exchange, I caught two other mathemisms. On the one hand, George Clooney and Anna Kendrick’s characters have a brief exchange about stable marriage, culminating in a quip along the lines of “Is there such a thing as a stable marriage?” Finally — and most of all — the word that Anna Kendrick’s character reveals as being emblematic of their new corporate direction is GLOCAL, which, as she explains, is a portmanteau of global and local. This seems too good to be accidental: I’m tempted to speak about “violations of the glocal principle” at the Joint Meetings…

  3. JSE says:

    Re your second comment, Pete — I think you’re totally right! I noticed “GLOCAL” but wrote it off as coincidence (lots of people use phrases of the form “X globally, Y locally” after all.) But the “stable marriage” business, which I totally missed, seals it.

  4. By the way, I started rereading the book, and the Pi quip occurs in Chapter 1.

  5. Regarding my first point: I looked around at the reviews and…apparently the film is a comedy. I agree that it was often funny. Maybe I really am the stereotypical “purist” who can’t handle the “refraction” brought on by a change of medium. (But don’t get me started on Sherlock Holmes.)

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