POSTED ON DECEMBER 30, 2009:
Jason Reitman builds on successful directing, and Robert Downey Jr. dives into Sherlock Holmes
Staying Grounded. George Clooney turns on the charm and a bit of the ham as Ryan Bingham in Up In the Air, while Anna Kendrick as Natalie Keener tries to keep up, next to his shining star.
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 do