Friday, January 22, 2010

Purposely Adrift: UP IN THE AIR

I’m trying to resist the urge to call Up in the Air “timely” or “the movie of the moment,” but it can’t be helped. Director Jason Reitman’s film, which he wrote with Sheldon Turner from the novel by Walter Kirn, captures the zeitgeist in its opening moments and never lets it go. This is the kind of movie that feels just right. It made me sit back in my seat and think to myself “Yes, this is how we live now.” And yet, the film isn’t self-important or singularly focused on making broad statements about our time. Reitman never loses sight of the fact that he’s telling a story about specific characters. These characters are so fully formed through perfectly pitched writing and acting that I could have spent time with them for much longer.

The film opens with a series of firings, the despondent faces of the fired looking back at us angry, confused, on the verge of tears. Then we meet the man on the other side of the table, the bearer of bad news. He’s Ryan Bingham (George Clooney). He’s contracted by companies to fire their employees. In the current economic downturn, he’s given remarkable job security which enables him to cultivate his deliberately untethered lifestyle, a kind of life that has him away from his Omaha apartment for over 300 days out of every year. When he is forced to stay in Omaha he returns to an apartment that is cold, sterile, and bare, without any indication that someone lives there. It’s a home that is less personal than a hotel, which is, of course, where he’d rather be.

He has a system for travelling that is nothing short of perfection. We see him packing his suitcase, going through security, and boarding a plane, each step moving with a rapid pace and crisp precision. We see tranquil aerial views announcing each new city that illuminate the respite Bingham finds while in flight. He’s hiding his emptiness behind routine, or at least that’s how it would be clearly delineated if this were the traditional Hollywood effort setting up the jaded cynic to learn how to open up and love life. This isn’t that movie, even though Bingham does receive some unanticipated changes in his perfectly honed routine.

These changes come in the form of two women. The first is a frequent flyer with whom he starts a casual romance when their paths cross in a hotel bar. As played by Vera Farmiga, this woman is the female equivalent to Bingham, a career-driven woman who can only meet him when their flight schedules happen to cross. The interactions between Farmiga and Clooney are filled with spark and wit, two incredibly confident personalities bouncing off and feeding into each other. Farmiga is radiant, and it’s not just the reflection off of Clooney’s likability. This is one of the most likable on-screen romances I’ve seen recently. How often do you actually want the characters to end up together instead of just mutually agreeing to go along with the movie’s romantic formula? I’m even more grateful, then, that the romance is so touchingly nuanced, so grounded in reality. Neither of them makes unbelievable shifts, even when they do something surprising. This is an adult interaction, an adult romance. That’s not to say it’s pornographic (though it manages to be frank without being specific), but rather it’s a casual romance that involves two adults who conduct their relationship in a thoroughly adult manner. Romances in Hollywood productions, even a wonderful film like (500) Days of Summer, lock their participants in a state of stunted romantic development with notions relating to relationships stuck in an adolescent state. Here, Farmiga and Clooney behave as adults who have had experiences, have lived lives, and are finding some moments of solace in finding each other.

The other woman who causes change in Bingham’s lifestyle is a new hire at the company that keeps him on the road. Played by Anna Kendrick, she’s a motormouthed delight. Fresh out of college, she wants to eliminate the need for so much travel despite much protest from Bingham who argues that she should understand the nuances of firing before trying to shake things up. Their boss (the always excellent Jason Bateman) sends them on the road together on a whirlwind downsizing mission. Kendrick and Clooney have an unforced rapport that starts in a place of hostility but has the possibility to become, not friendship exactly, but something closer to mutual respect. The relationship between these two characters is so convincing that it carries the film through what could have been treacherous avenues. The characters, with their age gap, are never drawn into a squirmy romantic attraction but nor do they move in a more paternal direction. This is an unforced portrait of cross-generational exchange that feels accurately and closely observed.

In a film like this, casting is almost everything. If the wrong actors were put in place, the movie, even with its strong writing, would fall apart. Luckily Farmiga, Kendrick, and Clooney are perfect in the kind of convergence between performer and character that leaves one entirely unable to imagine a different cast. Farmiga gives a glowing portrait of thirty-something beauty and she’s totally charming, but she also brings a hint of hidden depths of pain behind her easy-going attitude. Kendrick is a force of nature, always moving, always quick to speak, and yet she projects a fragility behind her confident bravado that reveals how young and out-of-place she feels, especially when firing a person twice her age. But Clooney may pull off the greatest acting feat out of the three of them, taking his winning one-step-ahead star persona and subtly subverting it in a way that seems effortless, turning Bingham into a man who lies to everyone about how happy he is, especially himself. He, like the film, is all sparkling charm over a nearly unfathomable sadness.

As the film moves into its final moments, it risks falling into a false crisis or a sappy sentimentality, especially with Bingham deciding to attend an event he seems indifferent towards at the opening of the film. That doesn’t happen. Jason Reitman has remarkable control over the tone and trajectory of the film, manipulating it with skill, staying true to his characters. He has grown remarkably as a director over the course of his first three features. Thank You for Smoking (2006) was a funny satire that would occasionally get a little sloppy in its tone. Juno (2007) featured incredible performances that were sometimes hurt by the odd faux-slang of Diablo Cody’s otherwise heartfelt screenplay. Now, with Up in the Air, Reitman has delivered a work that feels of one smooth piece from beginning to end. It’s a film that operates from a perceptive base of knowledge that filters through every scene, thoughtful and touching about how people really interact. And yet it is wedded to a Hollywood-slick style that features impeccable craft from all departments. This is truly one of the best of the year, not just because it’s timely, but because it’s well made in all aspects. This is a studio dramedy that scrapes at real emotions, that has a sense of reality in its ability to hold painful melancholy underneath the unexpectedly sweet.

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