Up in the Air

| December 7, 2009

It’s debatable whether Up in the Air is the year’s best film, but it’s certainly the best title. In just four words, it tells you everything you need to know about the film’s plot, characters, themes, and overarching message for our current times. As far as film titles go, it sure beats the wordy self-importance of Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire.
The film itself is a refreshing antidote to this year’s bombastic Oscar bait. It’s the third film by Jason Reitman (son of comedy maestro Ivan), who is finally receiving the critical attention he deserves. At age 32, he is clearly a master of his craft. His style is so airtight, it’s practically invisible. The protagonists in his films initially seem very sure of themselves, as they share their personal life philosophies with the audience. Yet their journey is always one of self-discovery, forcing them to leave their comfort zone, and leading them to question everything they once believed. Cinematographer Eric Steelberg often surrounds Reitman’s protagonists with a blurred landscape that makes them seem isolated even when they’re surrounded (creating a visual cocoon). Editor Dana E. Glauberman doesn’t waste a single frame of film, and has an exquisite eye for both comic timing and dramatic rhythm. And casting director Mindy Marin has a gift for finding the perfect actor for each role, turning fresh faces into household names. These are just three of the secret weapons that have helped make Reitman one of the most interesting Hollywood filmmakers working today.
As Ryan Bingham, the corporate downsizing expert who lives contentedly on the road, George Clooney delivers the most vulnerable and affecting performance of his career. Like Cary Grant, Clooney has always played characters who know all the angles, and emerge as the smartest people in the room (remember his great final monologue in Michael Clayton?). When he plays a character who’s not “in control,” his befuddlement is played for laughs (such as in Burn After Reading). Though there are plenty of well-earned guffaws in Up in the Air, the film is deeply serious at heart, and the rich texture of Clooney’s work is mesmerizing. Bingham’s job is to travel the country and fire people from their jobs, while offering half-hearted inspirational advice. He shares an emotional moment with an anguished worker, and then goes about his merry way, no strings attached. Yet when Bingham’s boss grounds him, opting for the web-based firing techniques offered by a new team member (Anna Kendrick), his fast-paced life hits a road block.
The plot has various twists and turns, some of which may be easy to guess for many viewers. Perhaps the film’s biggest weakness is that it lacks the exhilarating unpredictability of Juno, yet the script (by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, adapted from Walter Kirn’s novel) is much more naturalistic than Diabo Cody’s self-conscious dialogue (or, as Juno may have labeled it, “diablog”). All of Reitman’s characters are talkers, yet their best moments occur when they say nothing at all. There’s no breakout performance to match Ellen Page’s tour de force, but Kendrick is lovely to watch. She’s stolen scenes in all of her pictures (Camp, Rocket Science, Twilight), and she is more than up to the task of going toe-to-toe with her formidable co-stars. And if Clooney is Grant, then Vera Farmiga is Eva Marie Saint. As Bingham’s object of flirtation (and possibly desire), Farmiga resembles a Hitchcockian “icy blonde” (her hair seems to have been modeled after Saint in North by Northwest). There’s also some startlingly tender work from J.K. Simmons and Danny McBride, who reveals a sensitive side that’s a zillion miles removed from The Foot Fist Way. Some of the visual symbolism is a touch too obvious (such as when a grown man, frightened of commitment, sits in a nursery room and reads “The Velveteen Rabbit”). Yet for the most part, the film is strikingly beautiful and poetic, as Steelberg’s lens emphasizes the distance between Bingham and the rest of humanity. He also captures the devastation of the current economic crisis, which has left so many lives literally “up in the air” (several of the onscreen unemployed workers are real).
Reitman has made various indications that this film is indeed his most personal to date. Like his protagonist, Reitman has a love of traveling, and an obsession with acquiring frequent flier miles. He also seems to enjoy connecting with strangers. When he spoke last month at Columbia College, he was entirely at ease, charming the crowd and chatting with individual students (he’s as natural onstage as Kevin Smith). Toward the end, he looked at his surrounding audience and half-joked, “I’ll never see any of you again” (which directly mirrors one of Bingham’s lines). If you stay through the end credits of Up in the Air, you’ll hear a song by Kevin Renick, an independent musician based in St Louis, MO. Renick sent the song to Reitman, which he had written a year before the film was announced (coincidentally, the song and film share the same name). The song’s inclusion is a fitting coda to a film about the connections between strangers in an overcrowded world fraught with alienation.

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