Up in the Air

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/04/09 00:16:59

"Splendid Isolation"
5 stars (Awesome)

Considering the fact that he is the son of one of the chief architects of screen comedy in the latter half of the 20th century, it is perhaps not that big of a shock that Jason Reitman would choose to go into the family business as well. However, instead of following completely in father Ivan’s footsteps by producing broad, belly-laugh machines along the lines of “Animal House” or “Ghostbusters,” he has chosen instead to focus on quieter and more character-driven comedies and if that weren’t enough of a rarity these days, he has also shown a willingness and desire to mine laughs from characters and situations that would not strike most people as the most fertile ground for humor--his 2005 debut “Thank You for Smoking” invited us to get to know and like a tobacco lobbyist whose job is essentially to help convince people to take up cigarettes and his 2007 breakthrough “Juno” dealt with an acerbic pregnant teenager’s relationship with the childless couple planning to adopt her unborn baby. With his latest film, “Up in the Air,” he continues along that path by offering viewers the opportunity to laugh at a film that deals with, among other things, the cratering economy and an emotionally isolated central character who prefers the bland anonymity of hotel rooms and airport lounges to such concepts as home and family. Based on the success of his previous films, the fact that Reitman is able to wring enormous laughs from such theoretically unpalatable material is not especially surprising but “Up in the Air” is much more than just a comedy--it is a snapshot of a certain point in time in American history that is as finely detailed as any documentary, it is a subtle and nuanced character study of a person who finds himself unexpectedly reacquainted with his basic humanity long after he thought he had shut it away and it is a top-notch social satire that is both cutting and surprisingly humane. The result is a film that is one of the very best of the year and which officially launches Reitman into the ranks of major American filmmakers.

The film stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizer whose job is to fly from city to city to fire workers for companies that don’t have the guts (or the manpower) to make the cuts themselves. No matter how these people react to the news that their livelihood has been suddenly taken away from them, Ryan has a smoothly ritualized response and he concludes each of these meetings by informing the person on the other side of the desk that “Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are right now, and it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it.” This particular mantra is self-help stupidity of the most monstrously ineffective sort but by the time that dawns on the newly disenfranchised, Ryan is already off to his next assignment. This sounds like a horrible and almost unthinkable profession, though admittedly a perfect one to have in an economy in the grips of a major recession, but it is one for which Ryan is perfectly suited thanks to his surface charm and his generally unwillingness to become emotionally involved with anything--his “home” is a barely furnished apartment, he has no significant personal relationships to speak of and the one thing that seems to give him real pleasure is collecting frequent flyer miles and hotel reward points from his endless travels. This is not to suggest that Ryan is a bad person by any means--he is just someone who is wired a bit differently than most people and has constructed what is a satisfying and fulfilling life around that wiring.

As the film begins, Ryan is firing, no pun intended, on all cylinders--business is booming as overstaffed corporations are cutting payrolls left and right and he has even made the acquaintance of a beautiful fellow traveler, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), who shares his feelings towards impersonal interpersonal relationships and corporate reward programs--but things begin to change when his firm hires an ambitious young woman, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who is developing a program that will allow them to do the firings by teleconferencing in order to theoretically make them tidier and more efficient. This is a crushing blow to Ryan--even if he manages to retain his job once the program is implemented, it will mean an end to the extended traveling that has by now begun to define his life. In an effort to show Natalie that there is more to what he does for a living than merely saying “You’re fired,” Ryan takes her along on his next leg of firings to show her how it is done. Even as he is providing life lessons to his sort-of protégé (“I stereotype--it’s faster”), Ryan finds himself questioning his current existence and contemplating a new one, perhaps with Alex along for the ride, even going so far as to turn up for the wedding of his sister (Melanie Lynskey) with Alex at his side (“I want a plus-one”), a move that surprises everyone, including himself. This is all uncharted territory for him, of course, and the relentlessly ritualized Ryan is forced to discover that not everything in the world goes according to a prescribed plan, no matter how many miles you have in reserve.

“Up in the Air” is based on the 2002 novel of the same name by Walter Kirn and from what I understand, the screenplay by Reitman and Sheldon Turner reworks it considerably--among other things, the characters of Natalie and Alex and the plot developments involving the wedding and the online firing do not appear in the book. Because the screenplay is so different from the source material and because it is such a beautifully constructed piece of writing that effortlessly manages to maintain a balance between knowing comedy and thoughtful drama while giving us complex and compelling characters and supplying them with wonderfully witty dialogue that somehow manages to avoid sounding like it was written, I suspect that most of the reviews for the film are going to focus a lot of their praise on that particular aspect. While the screenplay certainly warrants all sorts of praise--it is one of the smartest and most solidly constructed scripts to come along in a while--it is Reitman’s skills as a director here that really help the film shine. This is the kind of film that needs to maintain the proper tone throughout if it is to succeed--if not, it just becomes another mawkish story of a heartless corporate shill who learns how to become a Better Person. Right from the start, Reitman finds the correct tone and as the story shifts back and forth between comedy, drama and its version of redemption, he manages to continually maintain it. Beyond that, “Up in the Air” is fascinating to watch because it never moves in the expected ways--the subplots involving Alex, Natalie and his family develop in intriguing ways and Reitman has enough confidence in the material to include extended sequences (mostly notably a bit in which Ryan, Alex and Natalie crash another company’s retreat) that don’t really contribute much to the story per se but which add immeasurably to the development of the characters. More significantly, he captures the look and feel of contemporary corporate culture in a climate where even those who are still lucky enough to have jobs are keenly aware of the fact that their years of effort and loyalty to their employers are essentially worthless in an economy that now values the bottom line more than ever. To accentuate this, he filled the small roles of those fired by Ryan with recently downsized non-actors recruited through classified ads and their real-life feelings of hurt, loss and betrayal add an edge to the proceedings that is palpable even if you didn’t know ahead of time, as I didn’t, that they weren’t simply a bunch of well-cast actors.

In his previous films, Reitman has also shown a wonderful facility for working with actors and giving them their moments to shine and that is certainly the case here. The notion of casting George Clooney in the role of a smooth corporate lackey happily doing the dirty work of others until he finds himself re-evaluating his life may seem almost too obvious--in many ways, his character here is not unlike the one he played in “Michael Clayton”--but it is hard to argue with such typecasting when the end result is a performance as good as the one he gives here. During the early scenes, he deploys all of the suave, movie star charisma that he has at his immaculately manicured fingertips in order to get viewers to like a character that might otherwise appall them and then as things progress and Ryan’s carefully constructed world begins to slip away, he beautifully lets that slick aura slide away as well to reveal the surprisingly vulnerable person beneath the slick sheen. Vera Farmiga has turned in a number of excellent performances over the last few years, even in films like “Orphan” that didn’t necessarily deserve them, but she has never been better than she is here--given less screen time than Clooney, she develops a character that is just as fascinating and multi-faceted and the relationship between her character and Ryan generates genuine sparks right from the start. For many viewers, Anna Kendrick will be most familiar as one of the supporting players in the woeful “Twilight” series but she practically steals the show here as Natalie, the ambitious go-getter who learns some tough lessons about the real world that presumably weren’t discussed in any of her high-priced business school classes. Over the course of his films, Reitman has also begun to develop a stock company of supporting actors as distinctive as the one that the great Preston Sturges used to deploy and several on them pop up here in memorable bits--Jason Bateman is Ryan’s boss (a wry inversion of the characters he has played in the past in “Arrested Development” and “Extract”), Sam Elliot is a corporate symbol come to life and the always-reliable J.K. Simmons turns up in an alternately hilarious and heartbreaking turn as a fired worker.

When I first saw “Up in the Air,” it was just as the buzz positioning it as the front-runner for the major year-end awards was beginning to intensify and while I loved the film, it struck me at first as maybe being a tad too light and airy to justify such acclaim. However, this is one of those films that grows deeper and more profound in the mind as you think about it and even though it is primarily a comedy, it is still a work that is smarter and more knowing than practically anything else that has hit the big screen this year. The only problem is that by receiving such overwhelming praise so early in the game, some viewers may become suspicious that it is nothing more than another critics darling that couldn’t possibly live up to all of that acclaim and pass it up in order to see something that looks more overtly entertaining. Trust me, if ever there was a film that lived up to and even exceeded all of its advanced critical hype while still remaining accessible and entertaining to any moviegoer who cherishes intelligent and inventive filmmaking, it is “Up in the Air.”

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