Review – Up in the Air

Up in the Air [2009]

Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriter: Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner

Sometimes a movie comes along that’s so tightly put together, so well acted and directed, and so brilliantly executed, that it’s impossible to deny its place as one of the best films of the year. Up in the Air is one of those films. Considering this is only Jason Reitman’s third film, after the wonderful Thank You For Smoking, and charming Juno, I’m starting to wonder how his streak of brilliance can continue, and furthermore, how long he can continue to make his movies better than the last. It’s hard to imagine him topping Up in the Air.

The film follows Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who’s a corporate downsizer. In other words, he fires people for a living. Companies outsource to the company he works for, who in turn sends him there to do their dirty work. And in the current economic climate, the work is as dirty as it gets. Ryan is good at what he does. If there can, in fact, be an art to firing people, Ryan Bingham would be the unparalleled master of the art. And he knows it. He loves his job, though one gets the feeling that he loves it no so much because he can fire people, but because he gets to spend his time in the air, on planes, in fancy hotel rooms, and alone. He says that one year he had to spend 43 “miserable” days at home, and that to fly with him is to know him.

At an airport bar one night, he meets a woman, Alex (Vera Farmiga). They are, it appears to Ryan, one in the same, and a witty, ingeniously funny scene takes place where the two of them try to vie for who has the most status based on the plastic they carry; the membership cards, hotel guest rewards, frequent flyer, etc. They then share a night together, and go their separate ways, but not before exchanging numbers. When Ryan’s boss (Jason Bateman), calls him back to Omaha, he finds that things are getting shaken up some. All flyers are being grounded, because a new system is being put in place where they can fire people over a webcam. They don’t even have the decency to do it in person anymore. This new system is being created and put in place by a young upstart, Natalie (Anna Kendrick). Ryan is, of course, openly displeased with the change, and makes it known. He convinces his boss that in-person firing is still worthwhile, and that Natalie, for all her great ideas, has no idea the business she’s getting herself into, and so he’s sent back on the road (or rather, in the air) again, to teach her the ropes.

There are some quirky situations that follow the characters, such as Ryan’s sister, who’s getting married, has asked him to bring a cardboard cutout of herself and her fiance and take pictures of “them” in front of interesting and notable places so that at the wedding, everyone can see all the places the two… haven’t been. This is simply the premise of the film. I leave out so much because it’s difficult to pinpoint individual things that are likable about it, because there’s just so much to like, or that revealing some of the deeper elements would spoil a film that deserves to unfold for the viewer without such spoilers.

What I can say is that this film was enjoyable from beginning to end. There was not a thing I would change. It was so well, and so tightly put together that not a second lags, not a minute passes by without feeling attached and involved in what’s taking place. The film knows when to use quick cuts, or when to use a slight shake of the camera, or when to linger on its characters and the places they inhabit. The cinematography is beautiful. Cinematographer Eric Steelberg knows exactly how to shoot a busy airport, or a snow-covered Wisconsin town, or the sun and water in Florida. Just the right touch of color inhabits each frame. And the script, co-written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, is funny, witty, and touching, without reaching too far.

What finally brings this movie together for a complete package is its cast. There are times when actors do well in their roles, and times in which one can imagine another person playing a role better. This is not one of those times. George Clooney seems to have been born to play this role. But he plays it without a cockiness one finds in other actors when such a cliche phrase is applied to a performance they do. He nails every line, every look and pause perfectly. It is one of the best performances of the year. Both Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga are perfectly cast for their roles as well. Farmiga’s role is subtler, quieter, and holds certain secrets to it that even by the end of the film we question her character’s actions and intentions. It is a role that can be overlooked because of its minimalism and lack of showy scenes. But it is all the more effective because of it. Kendrick nails the role of the young upstart so well that it amazes me to see that she really is as young as she looks. It’s a role that requires some quirkiness without going to the extremes, and it never once feels forced. That’s hard to do. The supporting cast are all great. That includes all of the snippets of people who had lost their jobs we see. I was surprised to learn that all of them are real people who did, in fact, lose their jobs. Such a detail is a heart wrenching and real touch that’s handled with a care rarely seen in movies today.

In the end, Up in the Air is not only an enjoyable film, but a film that explores deeper issues concerning unemployment, one’s place in the world, the meaning of life, relationships, and much more. If it sounds convoluted, my apologies, as it never once feels as such, and the way in which all these things are explored are done with such elegance and grace that you can’t help but smile. Can Jason Reitman really top this film? I don’t know. I suppose it’s not an impossible task. But he’s set the bar very high for himself. And I, for one, couldn’t be happier.

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