Following up on the success of Juno, writer/director Jason Reitman changes generational gears with his new film Up in the Air.
This time, we find ourselves sagely narrated to by Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) a professional corporate downsizer (or less euphemistically, hatchet man for hire). Bingham spends a large majority of his life flying between cities all across the country to deliver bad news to the condemned, while pointing the way to the light at the end of their professional tunnel.
Bingham's life is unmoored, and he likes it that way. He has no real attachments, familial or romantic, and in fact bolsters his earnings by giving Tony Robbins-esque self-help seminars espousing the advantages of the unencumbered life.
One evening in a hotel bar, Bingham crosses paths with Alex (Vera Farmiga), a like-minded corporate water-carrier and airport citizen with whom he strikes up a sexy rapport. It seems perfect that since they are both constantly scheduled that they coordinate their next meeting by running down a list of all the airports they'll be in--strictly by their 3-letter codes--TUL, DFW, LAX.
Bingham's life is one of transience and Alex seems to fit right in (since his job has essentially become life). He's pleased with how it all falls into place without realizing exactly how empty he is.
Enter Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a newly minted Cornell graduate who has been hired to Bingham's firm. She's sort of a downsizer herself as she introduces the idea of cutting overhead by eliminating most air travel, instead having the axe-men do their jobs via videoconference. Bingham's reptilian boss, Craig (Jason Bateman) is keen on the idea, but after Bingham points out a few flaws in the plan, he decides to take the smart but inexperienced Natalie on the road to see how the job is really done.
Up in the Air has a lot it wants to say. Wrapped around the tropes of a sophisticated, adult romantic comedy, the film is timely with its statements about a corporate culture that would rather outsource its own responsibilities than do its most basic house cleaning.
Director Reitman even includes a few brief interview scenes with non-actors who have actually been let go due to the economic downturn of the last year.
The cold, calculated nature of corporate self-preservation is hardly revelatory. Nor is the idea that landing on the wrong side of change is as much a matter of choice as circumstance. But they make for a nice framework on which to drape the film's resonant theme. That in an ever increasingly complex technological culture, the hardware we use to stay conveniently, yet more tangentially connected actually separates us from real human bonds that provide more to soften the harsh realities than we could ever give ourselves. Ice that cake with some good performances and a healthy dose of laughs, and you have a confection that's perfectly entertaining and much lighter than its well-timed sub-plots and themes would suggest.
Reitman guides the proceedings with his usual, that is to say, remarkably good eye for character, dialogue (Diablo Cody, aside) and performance.
I've liked every film he's done to one degree or another based mostly on how he taps each of those elements, creating breezy comedies with emotional heft that never seem to pull the obvious strings. Reitman loves giving his characters arcs that are never completely predictable, making them more believable even when you can see portents they are blind to as they begin to cast off the status quo of their lives.
Yet, Reitman rarely undermines his characters with obvious plot devices, making the whole endeavor a more richly textured film than your average situational rom-com.
Clooney mugs it up a bit much, if only to contrast the emotional void his character must feel.
As Ryan Bingham, Clooney is everything you'd expect: smooth, handsome and just a little too satisfied with himself. But Clooney is a fine actor, who can get across an emotional range with his somewhat economical tool kit and give layers to a character intended to be as shallow as a kiddie pool.
Vera Farmiga glows with wonderfully assured sexiness and charisma, which she's always had in spades. As Alex Goran, Farmiga is a natural as a fetching, old soul whose enticing charms are well protected by a moat of emotional distance, embodied in her gorgeous, glacial eyes. I could watch this woman read a phonebook for two hours.
Anna Kendrick as Natalie Keener, Ryan's protégé, is appropriately fresh-faced and witty, while never quite registering as anything more than that. It's hard to shine next to wattage like Clooney and Farmiga's. The character is well written, and Kendrick turns in an able performance; though I could think of a couple of other up-and-comers that might have been a better fit for the role. Mila Kunis comes to mind, immediately.
But the film has relatively few negatives. One sub-plot involving Ryan's sister's (Melanie Lynskey) impending marriage to Jim (Danny McBride), and his sudden cold feet seemed to exist only to telegraph the summit of Ryan's emotional arc and does so obviously as to seem contrived.
While the overall story doesn't make all the expected moves, it never completely finds an organic balance between its larger themes--which sometimes feel perfunctory--and the smaller character study at its heart. Overall, they are minor missteps, but Up in the Air came so close to being utterly great that they seem more noticeable when the film isn't quite hitting every cylinder.
Still, the result is something we don't get enough of: A smart, sexy, comedy that knows how to appease the heart, the head and the funny bone without leaving the audience with a sugar hangover. Jason Reitman seems to mature with every movie he makes, and Up in the Air should have you anticipating whatever he does next.
Living up to the Legend
Why is every time I see Robert Downey Jr., I get the idea he will be as long remembered and legendary an actor as any of the greats? And the guy is in his prime, too.
After a figurative return from the dead--career-wise--Downey has been on a roll starting with 2005's too-much-fun-for-it's-own-good Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and continuing with his unlikely turn as anti-hero Tony Stark in the Iron Man franchise.
It seems Downey is fully aware of the new lease on professional life he has so admirably earned, and it's good to see he's running with it since he is pretty much one of my favorite actors to see on screen. So it should come as no surprise that I thought Downey, along with Jude Law, elevated Sherlock Holmes to something higher than the sum of its pulpy parts.
When we meet Sherlock Holmes (Downey) he's in the midst of rescuing a young woman from a sacrificial ritual being performed by the wicked Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). Blackwood is a practitioner of black magic, and he endeavors to harness its evil power for his own mysterious ends. When Holmes saves the day, Blackwood is imprisoned and sentenced to death.
In the meantime, Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is in preparation to move out of the apartment he and Holmes share and get hitched to his girl Mary (Kelly Reilly).
Holmes is displeased with the situation, particularly since he's between cases and not enamored at the prospect of paying the full rent himself. Soon, Lord Blackwood requests to meet with Holmes on the night of his execution. He tells Holmes death will not hold him back from his larger plans, and that Holmes is in far more over his head than he realizes.
Sure enough, three days after his date with the hangman, panicked reports surface about Lord Blackwood still roaming among the living. Could he really be back from the dead, or is there something more to the mystery? Holmes, with his reluctant Watson, aims to find out.
To say more would ruin things, and of course the whole point is for Holmes to use his trademark mastery of deductive reasoning to piece the puzzle together. But here director Guy Ritchie (working from a script by a team of writers) not only invigorates the detective work with some decidedly contemporary visuals but pumps up the action with Holmes' lesser known talents for methodically beating the shit out of his opponents.
A far cry from the more dignified Basil Rathbone films, Ritchie's Holmes is a slickly paced, acerbically witty and undeniably silly bit of fun.
Soaked in a rich near tangible atmosphere, Ritchie does a fine job capturing the period details of 19th Century London as well as the great chemistry between Downey and Law. Just don't go asking for a revolutionary story or, as is so often the case with script-by-committee, even one that makes a hell of a lot of sense. It's pulpy fun all the way, with a tone closer to that of Indiana Jones as opposed to The Hound of the Baskervilles.
The saving grace of Sherlock Holmes is in its damn-the-torpedoes narrative momentum and the crackling work of its two leads, Downey and Law, along with a handy supporting turn from Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, Holmes' former love interest who has the dubious distinction of being the only person to ever fool him twice.
Mark Strong hams it up to complement the cheese in the uber-villainous role of Lord Blackwood, unfavorably reminding me of Richard Roxburgh's scenery chewing as Dracula in the atrocious Van Helsing. He probably would have hurt the film more had Downey and Law not afforded the proceedings so much good will. Director Ritchie reins it all together, albeit while sometimes getting dangerously close to letting the film fly off the rails.
It's not going to wind up on anyone's (or my) Top 10 or anything, but as a B-12 shot to a oft-remade, iconic character, Sherlock Holmes winds up being an enjoyable, relatively guilt-free, bit of popcorn fun.
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