Thursday, October 22, 2009

Up In The Air (***1/2)

Up In The Air
Directed by Jason Reitman


I don't like flying in planes. The anxiety of being up in the air so high plagues me weeks before any planned flight. I actually lose sleep in anticipation of flying, so I try to avoid airplanes if I can help it. Up In The Air, Jason Reitman's latest film, is about a man who is the exact opposite of me. He adores planes so much as to consider them his home--actually more than that. He sees planes as a sanctuary which allows him to hover above (literally and figuratively) the confines that come with everyday aspects of work, family, relationships, etc.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a representative for a company that specializes in career transition counseling. In essence, he fires people, and the way things have been going with the economy lately, business is booming. He'll visit your office, and meet with sometimes upward of twenty people to tell them that they've been let go. Ryan has become numb toward the raw, sometimes violent emotion he has to face from hostile ex-employees, and is willing to endure anything at his job as long as he is able to continue his lifestyle in the air.

His lifestyle is threatened, though, when his company hires Natalie (Anna Kendrick). Natalie is fresh out of grad school, and comes up with a new, cost-cutting strategy: fire people over the internet. Using webcam-streaming technology, you can put yourself right into the room with the people you're meeting with and you don't even have to leave your office. Ryan is immediately hostile, defending what he considers to be the nuance of his job. There is an art to what he does, and all the charm is lost if his face is a computer monitor. His boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), tells Ryan that he must take Natalie on assignment to teach her the ropes. Ryan is burdened, but is more than happy to explain to her just how useless her ideas are.

Off they go, and Natalie sees first-hand just how good Ryan is at avoiding human connection. He's charming and can get women, including Alex (Vera Farmiga) who is an equally disconnected frequent flier who likes to meet up with Ryan in between flight connections. But he is not tied down to anything, and though Natalie tries to explain to him the values of being with another person, he is stringent in his feelings against monotony. "The slower we move, the faster we die," Ryan says at his many conference speeches. Even his family, which includes a younger sister Julie (Melanie Lynskey) who is getting married soon, feels like they have no connection to Ryan at all.

The film is based on the book of the same name by Walter Kirn. Kirn's novel was quite idiosyncratic and had a story that stumbled over several conflicts that Kirn never commits to. Reitman really compresses the story, and unloads some of the many conflicts, which allows the story to flow more and have a real focus. Using a spectacular cast, Reitman takes a story that could have been tedious and makes it something truly refreshing. Containing serious wit and three-dimensional characters, Up In The Air is one pleasurable cinematic experience.

It is only Jason Reitman's third film, after Thank You For Smoking and Juno. The son of comic film legend Ivan Reitman, Jason has a great ear for humor, but an even sharper eye behind the camera. Like Smoking and Juno, there is a real delicate attention paid to the characters, and though their mouths were not spewing out Diablo Cody's loaded dialogue, they speak with swift effectiveness and never seem contrived. Much in the tradition of Robert Altman, or more directly Alexander Payne, it is the characters that are the driving forces behind the film's themes, and this allows them to unfold in a very organic way.

Of course, great characters are nothing if they aren't filled out with good acting. Even minor characters are supplied with wonderful performances--specifically, JK Simmons and Zach Galifianakis have great one-scene cameos as fired employees. Anna Kendrick (who I don't remember, but IMDb says I should have seen her in Twilight) is a revelation as Natalie. She looks like she's twelve, but rides an emotional roller coaster throughout the film that may have seemed a bit egregious if left in the hands of someone less talented. Vera Farmiga, an actress who seems to be forever a bridesmaid, is a wonder to watch as the catty Alex. She's a sexy seductress one moment, and then a shielded businesswoman the next. She may be on her way to an Oscar nomination.

Which leaves us with George Clooney, who I think is the very best movie star in Hollywood today. He's charming and funny, but has enough gravitas in his record to be seen as a serious actor. He has been a part of some great movies this decade, both in front and behind the camera, but Ryan Bingham may end up being Clooney's signature role and part of me feels it should be. Sure, Michael Clayton and Syriana expressed a darker side that many didn't see from him beforehand, but it is Clooney's playfulness that has made him a household name. Up In The Air allows him to flex his dramatic muscles, sure, but the performance reaches its peak when he is allowed to heckle and flash that wonderful grin. Ryan is an instinctively flawed human being, but that doesn't mean Clooney has to mope around the whole time.

Parts of the third act felt slow to me, and some moments were a bit more sentimental than I would have liked, but I guess this is part of the film's sensible appeal. The resolution will seem anticlimactic to some, but I didn't mind it that much. The film is filled with such break-neck poignancy and puts itself into a corner that is hard to get out of in the end. I feel that a less confident filmmaker would have punctuated the film with something more banal in fear that most of the audience would have felt jaded otherwise. I feel the ending is a good decision, one of many good decisions that add up to an exceptional film.

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