Review: "Up in the Air"

The economy is in the toilet and people are being laid off. Who ya gonna call?

Ryan Bingham, dashing corporate downsizer.

The month-long trifecta of films featuring the ever pleasing George Clooney began with The Men Who Stare at Goats, (which wanted us to consider the silly, amusing, and inspiringly stupid things our military does in pursuit of an occasionally drug-enhanced advantage over its perceived enemy). The Man Who Would Be (this generation's) Cary Grant then segued into Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson's charming and age-defying, stop-motion animated look at Roald Dahl's children's tale of a sly fox and his scheming animal companions. The final chapter wins the third time's the real charmer award, culminating with the dramatic comedy Up in the Air, the best and destined to be the most commercially successful of the varied and enjoyable bunch. You might find all three playing at the same multiplex. Not many actors can pull that off.

Clooney perfectly encompasses the finely-dressed, well-organized everyman Ryan Bingham who endlessly and obsessively travels from his home base in Omaha (I half-expected this to be an Alexander Payne presentation). Travelling more than 300 days per year, Ryan barely maintains a residence of any kind—an unencumbered loner who certainly and confidently never connects in any personal relationships. He's also the estranged sheep of his Midwestern family, wrestling whether to return to his ancestral home for his sister's wedding. He half-heartedly agrees to the future bride and groom's wishes that he take photos of a cardboard cut-out of their posed selves against any landmarks he happens upon.

He's self-assured when out doing the dastardly deed, i.e soothing the layoff blues for thousands losing their livelihoods at hundreds of companies. His soulless task is never ending, and the perpetually efficient Ryan has no patience for slow people, travels with only a single carry-on bag, and can eyeball (some call it stereotyping) the shortest lines at any security check-in. He's booked millions of frequent flyer miles (he's on a quest for an über-elite card with American Airlines, his air carrier of choice) and has an encyclopedic knowledge of every airport he's been through (and probably some he's not). Yet he always charming, even if he's curtly honest, and well trained in a business that may be putting him out of it. Seems his boss, a corporate bagman with a slightly unstable desire to cut corners—and played with perfect pitch by Jason Bateman (Juno, Arrested Development)—wants to replace the personal, soothing touch that Ryan so delicately delivers to the newly and psychologically destabilized unemployed, with a remote, technological face via impersonal video chat.

Yes, there's a lot of physical and emotional mileage covered here, but the script by helmer Jason Reitman (updating an earlier draft by Sheldon Turner) and based on a book by Walter Kirn is vibrantly witty and exceptionally delivered, just in time for the Holidays. While Clooney showcases the film and captures Reitman's comedic sensibilities flawlessly, it's the exciting relationship Ryan develops with another corporate traveler, Alex Goran, that helps put a shine on Ryan's face and yours. Vera Farmiga embodies her savvy character with a sexy, alluring earthiness, and delivers a knock-out punch as Ryan's kindred spirit. He finds her "casual" companionship attractively enervating (it starts as they energetically compare corporate and travel cards at a hotel bar) and Ryan ever so slowly begins to realize that maybe there is life outside of his own small cocoon. Best known for her performance in Martin Scorsese's The Departed, Farmiga's actually been acting for a decade. Now she'll finally get some more respect. So the next time you bump into her at the supermarket, remember to tell her, "Farmiga, I just loved you in that George Clooney film!" There's also Anna Kendrick, who shows she has more acting chops demanded of her in Up in the Air than as Jessica in the Twilight series movies. As the prim, proper, and ambitious Natalie Keener, she's a young, Cornell-educated (Go Big Red!) number-cruncher delivered as additional check-through (not for long) baggage to Ryan, part of Bateman's character's corporate streamlining strategy. She helps Ryan realize there's a world community he needs to join; he teaches her that their job demands more than just a cursory examination of a person's corporate output. Melanie Lynskey (Two and a Half Men and Danny McBride, the racy comedian (Eastbound and Down), are Ryan's sister and her fiancé. Their support, as well as that of Amy Morton as the other Bingham sibling, registers strongly in a key segment of the film. J.K.Simmons, Sam Elliott, and Zach Galifianakis make brief but memorable cameos.

In an interesting casting decision, and because of how the story changed from when it was originally developed—before our country flushed itself in one humdinger of a depression—Reitman decided to use real people, not actors, to tell their emotional experiences of losing a job in a faltering economy. Reitman recalled "We wanted the firing scenes to be honest and true. So we thought, 'why not show the real thing?'"

Starting December off with a flying leap, Jason Reitman's third film—following the deliciously satirical Thank You for Smoking and last year's Oscar-nominated breakout hit Juno—continues to show that the 32-year-old son of Ivan Ghostbusters Reitman (one of this film's producers) is one of the younger generation's rising stars and a Hollywood favorite, particularly as he has a knack for bringing home low-budget winners. His new hit cost between $25-30 million (peanuts in movie money), more than twice the combined budgets ($6.5 and $7.5 million) of his first two directing efforts, but I suspect it will easily gross more than the $143 million that Juno delivered.

Technically, the film's as clean as a whistle. Up in the Air marks Director of Photography Eric Steelberg's tenth film with Reitman, dating back to the short film Operation in 1998. His lens captures a bright, clear world and the perfect Midwestern U.S. settings designed by Steve Sakalad, another Reitman alum for his two previous features. Editor Dana Glauberman, who also worked on Juno and Thank You for Smoking,has done another cracker jack job. One scene in particular (well there are lots) has Ryan packing his bag and heading off to the airport. The cutting/composition carries aloud the compression that the character treats his few possessions and his precious time. "To know me is to fly with me," Ryan's character narrates. He breezes as the rest of the world crawls. Rolfe Kent (ah, the Alexander Payne connection!—for his scores on Sideways, About Schmidt, Election, and Citizen Ruth) does a masterfully complimentary score, with additional songs picked by music supervisor Randall Poster including Crosby, Stills & Nash and Charles Atlas.

So, it's time to stop reading and get off your butt. Fly down to the movie complex for that Clooney triple-bill, but, if you only have two hours to spare this time, be sure you don't miss Up in the Air. You'll be grounded if you do. Then again, after you've seen it once, you'll want to see it again.

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