Up in the Air (United States, 2009)December 02, 2009
Up in the Air is a wonderful little film (the word "little" being relative, of course). It was the best thing I saw at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, and it stand up as well away from the peculiar atmosphere of the festival as it did within the hermetically sealed environment. This is George Clooney's third film of the Oscar season (the other two being The Men Who Stare at Goats and the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox) and the one most likely to be acknowledged by the Academy. With director Jason Reitman behind the camera making his follow-up to Juno (a more successful one, I might add, than Diablo Cody's), this is far from 100% formula, and that's the reason why the marketing campaign is being handled carefully. The film needs to build word-of-mouth to find an audience, and I'm here to do what I can to help along the effort.
Reitman brings the same mixture of comedy and drama to this movie that he brought to Juno. There's some funny, laugh-out-loud material here, but the characters and their situations are well-developed. None of the three principals ever veer in the direction of caricature and Clooney is especially convincing as the lead. Playing a role 180 degrees opposite to the one he essays in The Men Who Stare at Goats, Clooney reminds us why he is among this generation's most consistent and reliable actors.
It helps immeasurably that Clooney's supporting female duo is in top form. Vera Farmiga, who, not unlike Tilda Swinton, has the uncanny ability be entirely credible as a sultry siren or a frumpy housewife, provides Clooney's perfect foil. She's in "upscale" mode here; their verbal jousts are memorable and the sexual chemistry between them sizzles. No less impressive is Anna Kendrick, whose performance as the ingénue getting some hard life lessons allows us to forgive her appearing in the Twilight series. She's easily dismissed in those; here, she shows that she has acting chops and knows what to do with them.
Clooney plays corporate layoff officer Ryan Bingham, a man whose most salient quality is his impermanence. He spends his days traveling from city-to-city and, for a fee, he delivers news of layoffs to soon-to-be-departed employees. He lives his life in hotels, airplanes, and airports, saying "All the things you hate about flying are warm reminders I'm home." In the past year, he has spent 322 days on the road and 43 "miserable" days in the one-bedroom unit he rents in Omaha. He has no time for relationships or possessions, and his one goal in life is to collect 10,000,000 miles so he can become the seventh member of that oh-so-rare club.
Two events add chaos to Ryan's ordered existence. The first is a chance meeting with fellow traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), who expresses herself this way: "Think of me as yourself, only with a vagina." In Alex, Ryan finds someone with whom he might actually be able to develop a semi-normal relationship, even if it is predominantly in hotels and airports. Meanwhile, at home base, Ryan's boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), has decided to implement a radical new strategy proposed by new hire Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) - using teleconference technology to allow remote layoffs. Determined to prove to her that this is not the way to go, Ryan brings Natalie on the road with him with unexpected results.
Up in the Air is one of the best movies to deal with the inhumanity of the way corporations cut work forces. The parody is razor-sharp and unflinching. Reitman nails his targets one-by-one and drives home each spike with resolute force. Ryan represents a fascinating specimen - a product of modern technology and today's culture - whose goal is almost the exact opposite of the "American dream." He doesn't want the house, the wife, or the children. He is almost estranged from his two sisters. And his relationships consist of one-night stands in airport hotels. He's a master at what he does yet, because of the way Clooney plays him, we sympathize with this guy, even though he thrives on the misery of others. All of the charisma and intelligence and wit almost make his lifestyle seem bizarrely desirable until those moments when the curtain is peeled back and we see the chilly loneliness that resides within Ryan's cupboard.
At times, Up in the Air looks and feels a little like a romantic comedy, but that's illusory. Ryan's relationship with Alex is a secondary plot - a way to illustrate things about him and to provide some tightly-scripted dialogue. (There is a brilliant sequence in which Alex and Natalie detail their very different expectations of the ideal mate.) The movie earns its ending; it may come as a surprise to some viewers, but it is foreshadowed and makes perfect sense in hindsight. Up in the Air never cheats and delivers an almost perfect mix of humor, satire, and underplayed drama.
(By the way, the first trailer for Up in the Air is excellent. It's extremely well put together and gives a sense of what the film is about without giving away specific plot elements. The second trailer is more conventional and not nearly as impressive. I have linked to the preferred one below - hopefully, the link stays active.)
Up in the Air (United States, 2009)
Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman
Screenplay: Jason Reitman and Shelton Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kim
Cinematography: Eric Steelberg
Music: Rolfe Kent
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures