Monday, December 7, 2009

Movie Review: Up in the Air

Up in the Air ****
Directed By:
Jason Reitman.
Written By: Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner based on the novel by Walter Kirn.
Starring: George Clooney (Ryan Bingham), Vera Farmiga (Alex Goran), Anna Kendrick (Natalie Keener), Jason Bateman (Craig Gregory), Amy Morton (Kara Bingham), Melanie Lynskey (Julie Bingham), J.K. Simmons (Bob), Sam Elliott (Maynard Finch), Danny McBride (Jim Miller), Zach Galifianakis (Steve).

Up in the Air is the story of a man who has shut himself off from the world. No, he doesn’t live like the Unabomber is some remote shack. In fact he is constantly surrounded by people. But he might as well be alone, as he has no meaningful connections with anyone. His parents are dead, and he largely ignores his two sisters. He works for a company whose specialty is firing people for companies who do not have the guts to do it themselves. He travels over 300 days a year, flying from one part of the country to another to lay people off. He lives in a bubble, and that’s the way he likes it.

George Clooney plays this character, called Ryan Bingham, in one of his best performances. There is not another actor in the world right now that is better capable of playing these movie star roles. We should hate Ryan Bingham. He is smug and arrogant, treats everyone as if they are disposable, and essentially thinks of no one other than himself. But we don’t hate Ryan. Clooney makes him too likable for that.

Several things bring Ryan out of his bubble – including as it must in all movies like this – two women. The first woman is Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow road warrior who Bingham meets in a bar, and the two start flirting by talking about the different airlines, hotels and car rental places they like. The fall into bed quickly – they’ve both done this before – but instead of this ending up as just another one night stand on the road, they coordinate their schedules so they can do it again. Not a real relationship mind you – this is just a series of one night stands with the same woman – but for Ryan, that may be as much of a connection as he’s ever had with a woman.

The other woman is Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a whip smart young woman who just graduated at the top of her class from Cornell, and has joined Ryan’s company. She has an idea to save the company lots of money – instead of flying people like Ryan all over the country, they can fire people via video conferencing over the internet. This will essentially make Ryan irrelevant, and worse, will stop his way of life. Before this new system is put into place however, the boss Craig (Jason Bateman), wants Ryan to bring Natalie out on the road with him for a few weeks so she can get a feel for what this job is really like. He begrudgingly agrees.

Written and directed by Jason Reitman, Up in the Air is the best American comedy of the year. It reminded, as did Reitman’s other two films Thank You for Smoking and Juno, of the films of Billy Wilder, with its cynical surface covering a heart of gold at the middle. Clooney is at his Cary Grant best here – smart, funny delivering one liners with perfection, but also slowly revealing the man underneath, who is slowly coming to realize his way of life is empty. When he’s not firing people, he delivers speeches to business audiences where he preaches leaving every connection behind them. He compares it all to a backpack – and all the things in our lives – houses, cars, children, spouses – are just baggage weighing us down and preventing us from really moving, which in his mind is living. Clooney is well on his way to an Oscar nomination for this performance, and he deserves it.

The supporting cast is universally excellent. The movie is filled with small roles that are played to perfection. JK Simmons and Zach Galifankis are both excellent as fired employees (almost all the rest of the people who Clooney fires are played by real life workers who were let go from their jobs). Jason Bateman is perfect as an asshole boss, with a few days growth on his face, spouting off about how great this economic downturn is for his company. Amy Morton (so brilliant on Broadway in August: Osage County) and Melanie Lynsky show up as Ryan’s sisters, and perhaps the only people left in the world who care about Ryan, although even they are starting to not care as much.

The two other standout performances though are by Farmiga and Kendrick. Farmiga is perfect as the businesswoman who has spent her life much like Ryan, and learned how to move in a man’s world. She tells Ryan at one point to think of her just like himself, only with a vagina, and that’s a fairly accurate description, Farmiga, as she has done in film after film in the last few years, takes a difficult role, and somehow makes us understand the woman underneath. She can be warm and funny, but also cold. It is a great performance. Even better is Kendrick as the type of recent University grad who thinks she has everything figured out, but really has a lot left to learn. She is whip smart, yet still somewhat na├»ve, and in Ryan she sees the type of person she doesn’t want to be, and in Alex the type of person she is destined to be. Kendrick has been delivering great performances for a few years now (I loved her in Rocket Science), but here she has her breakout role. If she wins an Oscar for this performance, I won’t be disappointed.

Up in the Air is pretty much a perfect movie for this time of economic uncertainty. Movies are always a little slow to catch up with the times, but Up in the Air feels like a movie for this moment in history, yet also one that will remain relevant in the upcoming years. Reitman has established himself as perhaps the best director of intelligent comedy working today, and Up in the Air is his best film to date.

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