Rapid Review: Up in the Air
Up in the Air is a GREAT film. I haven’t said that up front in a review for a very long time. It’s not flashy or tech-savvy and there are no worlds to be either saved or discovered. That’s part of what makes it so refreshing. The film is a character study – focusing on a small group of folks trying to make it in this darn economy without succumbing to the disease known as antipathy. How long can you toil away in a job with no soul before you cease to care? Up in the Air is a staunch reminder that the mess that is human relationships at work is what is significant. PEOPLE are significant.
I have never worshipped at the altar of George Clooney. I was never a rabid ER fan in the 90s, with or without George’s infamous Caesar haircut. It was his role in the tense thriller Michael Clayton that finally won me over. There’s more to Clooney’s charm than the iron-jawed good looks that have become his trademark. That sparkle in his eye hides a sharp intelligence, both on screen and in real life, and that is what I am learning to appreciate with each film he adds to his resume.
In Jason Reitman’s film Up in the Air, Clooney’s suave persona finds a perfect home. As Ryan Bingham, Clooney plays a man whose sole purpose in his life is to live out of a suitcase, traveling from American metropolis to metropolis, firing poor souls who are the victims of nameless, faceless corporations. Yet he does it with dignity and purpose, remembering that each severance package is attached to a very real human face. In his personal life, as in his career, Ryan’s goal is to sever human relationships. He’s become such an expert that he is no longer a part of his own family dynamic.
Clooney nails the role, but Reitman, in a bit of genius casting, manages to surround him with two brilliant supporting actresses. They steal the show. Reitman proved in his remarkable previous film, Juno, that he is an actresses’ director. He knows how to write AND light his leading and supporting ladies, and in this film it is Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick who benefit from his talents.
Vera Farmiga, who was so splendid in The Departed and in the oft-forgotten remake of The Manchurian Candidate, plays Alex Goran, Ryan’s female counterpart. She is warm and easy-going and is the spark in Ryan Bingham’s world that propels him towards a more “grounded” existence.
But, it is the mentor-protege relationship between Ryan and Anna Kendrick’s witty and naive Natalie that propels Up in the Air to new heights. Anna Kendrick’s come a long way from playing Bella’s friend in the useless and banal film adaptations of the Twilight books. Her role in that franchise is so minute I can’t even remember her character’s name. I’m hoping the producers and casting directors of those films are now kicking themselves for not giving her a meatier role (an Oscar nomination doesn’t hurt, either). Her character in Up in the Air, Natalie, is a 23-year old brainiac who doesn’t understand the human elements of the job. Ryan teaches her how to fire people. Natalie, in turn, teaches Ryan so much more about why life is not as simple as a bottom line.
The performances and the superb screenplay are the central elements of what makes Up in the Air work. It is by far one of the best movies of the year, and I’m hoping it is a dark horse in the upcoming Oscar race. Remember when we went to the movies to see films about REAL human drama, in all of its messy dimensions? Up in the Air’s title has a nifty duality. It is where Ryan, at first, considers his home to be. Yet, it is also the dangerous limbo where his relationships may end up. I appreciated that the movie didn’t wrap all the loose ends up in a warm pink bow, yet I still left feeling that everything turned 0ut as it should have.
Jason Reitman, who at 32 is one of Hollywood’s brightest new stars, has wisely chosen to make character, rather than plot-driven films. It is a bold choice in the current climate and economy, where films like Avatar, while entertaining, don’t really make a lasting impression in a viewer’s long-term memory. Up in the Air, on the other hand, will stick with me. It has a beating heart and a truly interesting story to tell about loyalty, home and commitment, if only viewers will care enought to listen.
Overall Grade: A +