The M/C Review: 'Up In The Air' destroys with quiet confidence
George Clooney's career-best work just one of this film's pleasures
Life in a suitcase requires a particular skill set, and either you're good at it, or you're not. I was not good at it for a loooooong time, and then I realized I was making it harder on myself than it needs to be. I got good at it. I developed the skills to make air travel at least tolerable. I can do it. I will never enjoy the process. Even when I've flown business or first class (which, admittedly, is not often), I still find it to be, at best, something I can make myself do.
But I do understand why it could be seductive. And at certain points in my life, I've tried to embrace that lifestyle a bit, and always strategically. If you're living in several places, it's exciting. It keeps you focused, I've always found. There was a point when I was younger when I was living bicoastally for a while, working on something in New York and another something in LA, and going back and forth, with two very different social circles on the two coasts. No one can hold you responsible on one coast for something you do somewhere else, I found. It's an attractive way to live, and if you multiply those stops from two, like I was doing and you add in a bunch of cities... in fact, nothing but one different city after another... so that you think of the environment of a hotel as home. I can see it. If you're going top-flight, if things are easy. If it's all like clockwork for you, and you like it...
The first thing Jason Reitman does right in "Up In The Air," adapted from the novel by Walter Kim, is he shows us why Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) would want to live the way he does. And considering how much I disagree, how much I hate traveling, I found myself seeing it from Ryan's point of view, and Reitman makes it look sleek and inviting, from the airports to the surprising and impressive nude figure of Alex (Vera Farmiga), a woman whose path keeps crossing Ryan's, leading to a casual repeated affair that slowly starts to look like it might not be casual. That sounds like the most basic, familiar device for a Hollywood romantic comedy... but that's not this film.
[more after the jump]
This is something deeper, and it represents a major step forward for director Jason Reitman. I find both of the earlier films by Reitman to be really solid, well-executed entertainments. I think he's got chops, a certain degree of taste in his choices overall, and I'd say I have a generally good impression of what he does. But it's always a little strange, because I remember him as Ivan Reitman's teenage son who came in to buy laserdiscs with his dad sometimes. Just like I remember a pre-teen Rachel Bilson and her dad, a screenwriter who came in a couple of times a week. It's so surreal sometimes to see those kids grown and not only on TV, but creating the films and the TV shows that are front and center in the culture right now. It's hard to believe that kid is the same person who made the movie that punched a hole in me when I saw it the other day.
"Up In The Air" makes a really interesting companion piece to Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story," and I wonder which order they'd play best in. One of the touches I like a lot in the film is the way Reitman uses real people in a very specific role in the film, intercut with some actors for punctuation. In the film, Ryan Bingham's profession is firing people. He works for a company that takes outsourced assignments to go to a company that is laying people off, meet with the people, tell them what to expect as they're being fired, and then ride off to the next town. And when we are watching him work at the start, and we're seeing the people react to being fired, those people are for the most part just people who had actually recently been fired. You can tell, too. None of them look like actors, and the emotions that are rolling just under the surface, or that spill over in some cases, are powerful, raw. It could easily be a gimmick, but one of the major threads of the film is that people who are being fired deserve to be treated by someone with dignity and class, and not just treated as an impersonal item on a spreadsheet to be "dealt with."
Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is a new hire at Ryan's company, but Ryan's boss Craig (Jason Bateman) is a believer in what she's got to say. She wants to centralize the company and do all the firing over computer screens, something that Ryan feels would be disastrous. Part of it is because he genuinely believes that you need to do this kind of work face-to-face, and part of it is because he is terrified of the idea of having to live in one place permanently. Putting down roots isn't just an alternative to the lifestyle he's chosen... it's a nightmare to him.
In their first meeting, Ryan tears Natalie apart, exposing the massive flaws in her new system, pointing out her near-total lack of practical experience. Craig, convinced that she's going to revolutionize their business, insists that Ryan take her out on the road so she can see what she's talking about replacing. And again... I can see how that storyline could be the start of a truly awful Matthew McConaughey/Kate Hudson movie.
But there's a sense of quiet to this film, a sense of simple precision, that is very mature, very direct. This movie's not trying to hard-sell you on its significance or its meaning. And it's not interested in being post-modern or clever with the almost painfully-obvious parallels between George Clooney's life and this character. Instead, the film takes its time, meanders a bit. Gets lost on the road sometimes. And by the time the characters start to have major epiphanies... because it's not just Ryan who is affected by the trip... it feels like something that really would happen, not something that has to happen because "that's the way these movies work." It's actually a fairly hushed movie, with those three main characters and then several people who show up in brief supporting performances, all of them pitch-perfect, too. Anna Kendrick is going to get the biggest boost out of this movie because she's just that good, just that real and funny and heartbreaking and clever.
And then there's Clooney. I'm not trying to hyperbolize when I say that this is some of my favorite work by him, and it's because he knows how people will digest him in the film, and he never lets it affect how he approaches the role. He knows Ryan Bingham, but there's no judgment inherent to what he does. This isn't a movie that makes plastic, surface observations about what change Ryan needs in his life or how he's prepared to get it. Clooney plays a man in spiritual free fall very, very well, but that's just pat of Ryan. He's inordinately smooth, he's obsessed with reaching "a certain number" of airline travel miles because of the potential reward, he's genuinely good at what he does, and he values it. He values being that guy. He values being on the road because he can be anyone he likes when he's in an airport bar or by the pool of some hotel in Dubuque. And just because George Clooney's playing Ryan, that does not guarantee you the happy ending, or the sad one. In fact, I'm not sure if even Reitman could tell you if the ending is happy or sad. I think it's note-perfect, and Clooney doesn't have to take the victory lap by going over the top with the character. By playing it the way he does, he helps steer the tone for everyone else.
"Up In The Air" may not pack the same emotional punch for everyone, but I suspect most people will find plenty to like in it. I just think that being 3,000 miles away from my family made this film exta tough for me. Whatever the case, this is major jump up from a major younger filmmaker. It is not often that a son surpasses the father as a craftsman in film, but in this case, I think Jason Reitman is the one who appears to be totally untethered from the ground, totally free up there in the air, with his father to thank for pinning the wings on his chest in the first place.
Short version: I loved it.
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