Wednesday, September 16, 2009


(Gala Presentation)
(USA, 2009, 108 minutes)
Written by: Sheldon Turner and Jason Reitman
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Danny McBride, J.K. Simmons

George Clooney’s easy, unforced charm and Jason Reitman’s confident direction propel this breezy but unexpectedly astringent comedy/drama about lives adrift across America circa today--some cruelly jettisoned by the realities of the workplace, others hovering noncommittally by conscious choice. Likely to be promoted as a feel-good date flick, “Up In The Air” is a remarkably astute film considering its director is barely past thirty.

Ryan Bingham (Clooney, never better) has been getting a lot of work lately, flying about the U.S. first-class with a single purpose: to fire people. Hardly a cold-blooded corporate axe-man, he feels genuine compassion for his clients, and has even convinced himself that his dismantling of their predictable careers is a gift of liberation; a kick-start to a worthier life path. For fun, he embraces the finest hotel pampering and the anticipation of finally acquiring ten million frequent flyer miles. During a stay in Atlanta, he enjoys a tryst with fellow, but oh-so-feminine free spirit Alex (Farmiga)--“think of me as you with a vagina” she purrs--who seems to share Bingham’s mantra best summed up in his popular motivational speech: “The slower we move the faster we die…moving is living…We are not swans. We are sharks.”

Summoned back to headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska (where he maintains an apartment for the whole seventy days of the year he stays put), Bingham meets Natalie (Kendrick), a pompous young Ivy Leaguer who has convinced his boss (Bateman) that video conferencing is a more tactful and, of course, cost-saving way to terminate employees. Bingham counters that her solution is ineffective and inhumane, and to prove it, takes her on the road with him, arranging to meet Alex again along the way. Having to face the tears and desperation of those made “redundant” without the safety of a monitor, Natalie struggles with the moral consequences of her profession, and Bingham with those of his chosen lifestyle, once Alex reveals herself to be too perfect a fantasy…

Based on Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel, “Up In The Air” emanates rare intelligence and humanity without being twee or self-consciously arty. At first, it seems as if we’re being set up for the dreaded Everyone Learns A Valuable Lesson parable, and for the most part, they do—as do we, at least, those of us who’ve come to dread the star-powered romantic comedy. Reitman and co. delight in setting up potentially hackneyed developments and then skewing expectations--in many ways, I couldn’t help but think of Michael Clayton, in which Clooney assayed a similar role as a world-weary “bagman” for corporations, which had the veneer and structure of a Grisham-issue legal thriller but ultimately proved to be something much more complex and reflective.

Clooney’s unique gift is his ability to show vulnerability without resorting to histrionics. He seems at home in the antiseptic airports, lounges, and hotel rooms, which had me thinking of his role as Chris Kelvin in “Solaris”, another role in which you could see the cracks forming in his roguish facade. In a fun running gag, he accepts the challenge to photograph a cardboard cutout of his betrothed sister and her fiancee (McBride) against various landmarks as a wedding gift.

Kendrick steps out of her leading man’s shadow as Natalie—no small feat, that--who could’ve been the film’s one false note. Initially, she seems to have stepped out of the supporting cast of “The Office” as a cold-blooded corporate drone, but gradually, her buttoned-up automaton is worn down by the fall-out of her career’s demands, and a nuanced, fragile person emerges, one whose Prince Charming fantasy of marriage and family is a defense mechanism and a blinder to the real world around her.

“Up In The Air” is also a remarkably ballsy film, daring to risk alienating a large part of the potential audience by seeking laughs from the all-too-serious subject of workplace downsizing (at the time of this writing, the U.S. unemployment rate is hovering just below a depressing 10%).Whereas in the last Great Depression most comedies aimed to be distractions from the problems of the world, this one confronts the realities of our age head on. It’s in these sequences where the film is most affecting. Reitman shot scenes with real people talking about what how being fired has affected their lives and self-esteem, and he’s interspersed these bits ala “Reds” and “When Harry Met Sally” with scripted moments, including two particularly powerful scenes with a combative Zach Galifianakis and a broken J.K. Simmons (his second memorable cameo of TIFF 2009, following his turn as a war-vet science teacher in “Jennifer’s Body”), respectively.

Reitman’s now three-for-three, an impressive track record for someone so young, and who obviously had to overcome suspicions of nepotism, which should now be extinguished once and for all. The term “Reitmanesque” is well on its way to entering the lexicon of film terminology--with apologies to his father, who was on his way to claiming the term for himself until he decided a pregnant Arnold Schwarzenegger was a sure-fire idea...

©Robert J. Lewis 2009