Written by: Tom Hardej, Special to CC2K
Jason Reitman delivers his most grown-up film to date in one of the year's best.
Up in the Air might be the best movie I see all year. I’m just putting it out there. It could be easy to dismiss Jason Reitman as a director. Thank You for Smoking and Juno, while very good movies, rely a little too much on the gimmick more than the characters or the plot. The direction in Up in the Air is frantic at times, but it’s easily Reitman’s most mature film to date. Maybe it’s because he wrote the script on this one (adapted from Walter Kim’s novel), but you can feel his connection to the story and he just manages to get really strong, but subtle performances from all the actors.
George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham a man who companies hire to fire their employees. He travels so much that he doesn’t even really have a place to live. (He lives up in the air—get it?) He never sees his family. He has no connections with anyone. All he knows are rental cars, airplanes, and hotels. (The product placement in this movie was ridiculous, by the way. Hertz, American Airlines, and Hilton should give anyone who sees it a discount.) But he likes his life. He meets a fellow traveler at a hotel bar (played by the lovely Vera Farmiga) and the first thing they do is to compare notes on their various preferred customer cards. They coordinate their travel schedules to meet on the road whenever they can. She’s the female version of him.
But everything changes when Bingham is sent back to the home office for a big meeting and he finds out that he may not be required to travel anymore. They may be able to fire people over webcams and the Internet, and it’s all thanks to, Natalie, a plucky new upstart at the company (played by the plucky new upstart, Anna Kendrick). Bingham argues that she doesn’t know the first thing about firing people—it should always be done in person, and so it is decided that she should go on the road with him.
This is when the movie starts to really become what it is. In the front, it’s the very relevant story about corporate downsizing, and what that really means at the human level. Employers higher Bingham so that they don’t have to actually face their employees, and Bingham is good at it because he’s good at being detached from other people. But it’s also about relationships, what we expect from then when we’re young and what we settle for when we’re older. Natalie is young and finding her way, and Ryan is old, more mature in some ways, but totally lost in a lot of others. The saving grace of the movie is that they never, not once consider each other in a romantic way. It never becomes that movie because they both have other matters to attend to. Natalie’s trying to make a name for herself at the company and Ryan is trying to join the 10 million mile club with the airline, a supposed milestone for the frequent traveler that only a few people have ever achieved.
I don’t want to say any more about the plot. It involves Bingham’s sister’s wedding, and a few other things, but the real joy in this movie comes from the performances. This is the best George Clooney has ever been. He’s carried movies before, but never quite like this, because you forget that you’re watching George Clooney, an impressive feat, and something he’s not always able to do. He’s charming, but introverted, cold, but sensitive, and it works completely. Vera Farmiga is always good. She ultimately plays an unsympathetic character (and I’m giving away too much here), but she makes you believe she is who you want her to be, and because the movie is a bit more literary in the way it tells its story, you sort of know how it has to end. The one who really surprises though, is Anna Kendrick, who before this was best known for her role in the Twilight movies. She’s annoying at first and it seems like a post-grad Tracy Flick, but she’s not just a two-dimensional archetype. She’s young and she’s a go-getter, but there’s a softness beneath the top layer and she shows a lot of emotional depth in the character.
The ending left me a little cold, honestly, but how else could it end? It’s predictable, but not in a wholly unsatisfying way. But the movie stayed with me after I saw it. I kept thinking about how great it was. It’s just a smart movie for adults and it’s exactly the kind of thing that Hollywood hardly ever produces. So enjoy it. There won’t be another one coming around too soon.