Prior to seeing the film, I was under the shameful impression that Jason Reitman‘s Up in the Air would be a lighter variation on 2007’s Michael Clayton, the dreary yet tightly written George Clooney success. Both star your mom’s favorite actor as a dream shatterer; in Reitman’s film, he’s Ryan Bingham, the guy hired by your backbone-less company to send your ass straight to unemployment, while he’s a law-firm’s prized “fixer” in Tony Gilroy’s ’07 Oscar contender. In both, he’s a problem-solver-for-hire. The Up in the Air trailer promised a self-evaluation, one leading to a realization that Clooney’s character needs personal change, similar to how his Michael Clayton came to grips with his role in indirect murders. The familiarity left me with minimal excitement for Up in the Air, frankly, even though every critic with a WordPress account had been hailing Reitman’s third picture as one of the, if not the, year’s best. I’m a fool like that, sometimes.
I couldn’t have been further from reality. Up in the Air is its own compelling entity, a serious comedy full of heartbreaking levity. Reitman—-who co-wrote the film’s script with Sheldon Turner, together adapting a 2001 novel by author Walter Kirn—-directs with a remarkable hand. Stylish without overstepping the lines, subtle without losing any of his own creative identity. The dialogue is always sharp, at times downright brilliant (I’m confident in saying that “You’re a parenthesis” will go down as 2009’s most devastating insult). And George Clooney is at his best, in a role that allows him to flex his God-given charisma just as much as it challenges his abilities, demanding new facets of vulnerability and sadness that are foreign to one Danny Ocean. Not even Michael Clayton could transmit unseen tears as convincingly as Clooney does here, in a post-wedding-rehearsal chat between brother and sisters that drives home just how detached he is from those he should unconditionally support. The pain on Clooney’s face is expressive acting at its most effective.
I won’t shoot myself in the lip by saying he deserves the Academy’s Best Actor statue (it’s way too early for such hyperbole), but he’s secured a top-slot in my personal list, alongside Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), pending on the leading-man merits of Invictus (Morgan Freeman), A Single Man (Colin Firth) and one I’ve slacked off on seeing thus far, sadly, A Serious Man (Michael Stuhlbarg). I’m absolutely riding with Team Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds), but he’s on the supporting side, anyway.
Let’s lock in both Clooney’s and Reitman’s names in the nominees-for-sure discussions, shall we? Continued after the jump:
Though, let’s not overlook the film’s two female powerhouses: Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. The latter, who’s currently sending teens aflutter in The Twilight Saga: New Moon, has received the most widespread acclaim of the pair, and you can’t be mad at that. She’s the perfect mix of hard-headed and painfully naive here, as a hotshot new employee at Bingham’s company who has a bright idea, one that could potentially ground traveling types such as Bingham and usher in an age of video-conferenced layoffs. Bingham, unable to form any real emotional bonds with family or women (though he’s great at bedding the gals, free of attachment), detests her pitch; it’d force him to be at home more than 90 days a year. For a guy who flies 350,000 a year and is gunning for a grand career total of 10 million miles under American Airlines’ watch, her proposition is a nightmare. Yet, Kendrick never lets her ‘Natalie Keener’ come off as a villain; she’s, in many ways, more sympathetic than Bingham. Her sweet ignorance toward love and dependency on finding a guy who fits her exhaustive list of criteria leads to wonderful sitdown with elders Clooney and Farmiga, a delightful scene that provides another of the film’s great dialogue exchanges, one that compares breaking up with a girlfriend over text message to firing somebody via video-conference.
Anticipating love with such predetermination is also the antithesis of the ‘Alex Groan’ (Farmiga) way-of-thinking. Groan, like Bingham, lives on the road….or, in the air, to be precise. She has little time for long-distance relationships that extend past hotel room sex romps and dirty phone messages. And that’s why she digs Bingham so much, whom she first meets at a swanky hotel bar; they compare business cards for rental car services, and then use their individual frequent flier mile counts as kinky aphrodisiacs. Again, similar to Kendrick’s ‘Keener,’ Reitman and Turner have written Alex Groan not as a floosy, but with a delicacy that makes her every bit as crucial to Bingham’s humanization as Clooney’s own portrayal. Farmiga, who’s consistently impressed me enough to label her as one of Hollywood’s most underappreciated actresses (sure, she was solid in The Departed, but give her work in Joshua and Orphan some just due, eh?), gives her best performance here. I’ll avoid any chauvinistic flash, and not focus on how unbelievably sexy she is, or how I hope that her “ass shot” early into the film isn’t a butt-double, but the real deal Holyfield. Because that’d cheapen her great work, and I have an unfortunate hunch that she’ll go overlooked come January, when the awards season chugs into overdrive.
This past April, I entered a three-month period I now like to refer to as “Unemployment Mind-Fuck Central,” when my five-plus-year term at KING Magazine was forcibly concluded in an economic meltdown. My first time collecting those meager weekly checks, I noticed that my demeanor gradually shattered over the course of those 90 days, decreasing from “Now I can truly figure my life out” to “I’m never going to find a job, ever again.” Though my company was “man” enough to have an actual higher-up employee break the news to my staff, they might as well have sent a Ryan Bingham-type our way; it wouldn’t have softened the blow at all. What saved me from deteriorating into a self-worthless funk, though, was my beloved family and friends; without friendships cemented over 10 years, or Barone-and-Gatens bonds (Gatens being my mother’s maiden name), I can’t tell where I would’ve ended up by summer’s end. Probably as a waiter within the nearby Applebees system. My loved ones never let me grab the white towel, though; defeat at my own hands and flimsy whims wasn’t an option.
You’d think that Jason Reitman had used me as a research subject before writing this movie. The importance of actual, tangible, emotional person-to-person links is the film’s pulse. It’s what turns Clooney’s lead into a tragic figure, what gives the opening and closing testimonials from real-life recent layoff victims their real heft. The always-insightful Tom Carson, GQ‘s resident film critics, calls Up in the Air “the movie of the year… the movie of the moment,” and he’s unquestionably correct. If you yourself can’t relate to today’s unemployment drama, first give yourself an Oreo, and then simply pan around your general area—-odds are, you’ll see somebody who’s currently in the same mental tug-of-war that I was back in April-May-June. Up in the Air is essential viewing for all those without means of fulltime income; it’s equally inspirational and relatable.
I may not have expected Jason Reitman’s film to dominate me, but it sure as hell did.