Up in the Air – Review

George Clooney racks up frequent flyer miles in Jason Reitman’s best film to date.

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Director: Jason Reitman
Notable Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, Danny McBride, Zach Galifinakis

Up in the Air is proof that studios can make quality movies if they try. What I mean is they take chances by financing the production rather than throw a couple of million to something that shows promise on the festival circuit. Seeing it first in October and again more recently – just to see if it held up – the film remains one of the must-sees of the year. For George Clooney the release marks his third film in the span of a month (the other two are The Men Who Stare at Goats and Fantastic Mr. Fox). It truly is the “Season of George.” But not even Clooney’s charisma is enough to sell a movie like this. Word-of-mouth advice from critics and astute moviegoers is what will help the film find the audience it justly deserves.

Up until now Jason Reitman’s short resume is immaculate; as strong as Quentin Tarantino and P. T. Anderson at this point in their careers. Thank You for Smoking and Juno are two of the best comedies of the latter part of the decade. After all the Oscar hoopla that went with Juno, where Reitman was basically a hired gun filling a vacant director’s chair, it would be easy enough for him to lay an egg for his next film. But Reitman doesn’t fall into the same trap that Diablo Cody did.

Mixing comedy with drama, Up in the Air is a timely reminder – an observance, really – of the economic climate. It’s about a man who is always on the move, because to him “moving is living.” George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a career traveler who spends more than 300 days on the road each year. His travel is work related, and during a miserable economy his is one of the few jobs that is secured. He goes from city to city and breaks the news to unsuspecting employees that they’ve been laid off. On the side he’ll do speaker engagements where he espouses about possessions and relationships and how they weigh us down. Get rid of them and keep moving.

Ryan loves the traveling experience. From the single-night stays in hotels, to the airport security process, to the little knick-knacks found in terminal kiosks, this is the life for him. He is a creature of habit staying true to his motivational sermons; he has no time for relationships and is distant from family. His one big goal is to collect ten million flyer miles so he can become just the seventh person to do so. To compare, more men have stepped foot on the moon.

Making the transition from TV to film is risky, and few have seen their status rise because of it. Almost a decade ago the Coen brothers cast George Clooney as their star for O’ Brother Where Art Thou. His performance drew comparisons to Clark Gable. Since that role, Clooney has slowly increased his acting repertoire. In many ways Ryan Bingham is a culmination of many of his roles (Danny Ocean, Jack Foley, Michael Clayton) into one suit-and-tie package. Clooney feels totally at home in a role that seems written just for him.

Helping Clooney is a pair of females whose polarizing viewpoints play against his own. First is Vera Farmiga – who earlier this year adopted the orphan from hell – an actress that can play frumpy and sexy and be convincing in both. The wordplay she has with Clooney provides some of the best verbal exchanges from any movie this year. And because they both get off on the idea of elite status (i.e., a wallet full of credit cards), it quickens the step from a round of drinks to a little hotel lovemaking. Also impressive is Anna Kendrick as the 23-year-old grad student who has some fresh ideas when it comes to termination. Kendrick, it should be noted, was in both Twilight films, yet proves here that she may the most talented fake vampire of the bunch. So I’ll give her a pass.

Ryan’s perfect, carry-on luggage lifestyle is altered when he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga) late one evening in a hotel bar. When she tells him, “think of me as yourself, only with a vagina,” Ryan has a tinge of love in his heart and not just in his pants. Ryan might even be willing to break out of his relationship bubble and start one with her. But for the relationship to fully flourish it needs to extend beyond hotel rooms and airports.

The other woman causing his life to veer off course is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), the Cornell grad/new hire in the Omaha-based company that has proposed a radical new way of firing people – over the Internet by way of teleconferencing. Ryan is committed to doing business as usual; but traveling expenses and time on the road is cutting into profits. When his boss (Jason Bateman) forces the issue, Ryan reluctantly brings Natalie on the road to show her the ropes on how to properly terminate a person’s employment. Turns out layoffs are like engaging in a hostage negotiation. There are certain words you should not say – “fire” being the biggie. Ryan believes the class and dignity that comes with laying off a person is something that can’t be achieved with the use of computers.

The three characters have their singular moments to shine with Ryan Bingham leading the way. His phobia of relationships contradicts Natalie’s own outlook on life. She even knows when she wants to be married and have kids, and has a clear idea of what her Mr. Right would look like. (If only she had a Wall Street Journal, an L.L. Bean catalogue, a super computer and a little “weird science” to make her dreams come true.) Alex, while sharing Ryan’s love of flier miles and other status symbols, shows that the older you are, the more you’ll be inclined to take Mr. Right Now instead of waiting for Mr. Right.

Up in the Air is a marvelous picture that interweaves great acting with great writing in a story that shows the malaise in an economy gone wrong. It is smart and witty, timely and endearing; and it’s the kind of movie that Hollywood just doesn’t make enough of these days. Jason Reitman, still maturing as a filmmaker (he’s only 32!), ups his game and has produced a movie that should be embraced by older audiences and for anyone who wants to see something good at the cinema for a change.

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