Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) enjoys all the perks of the frequent air traveler and aspires to be only the third American Airlines customer to attain 10 million miles. He supplements his income as a third party layoff agent with speaking engagements about how to unencumber oneself from material and personal baggage. But when his boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman, "State of Play," "Extract") calls his road warriors back to Omaha to see a presentation by new twenty-something efficiency expert Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, "The Twilight Saga"), Ryan is horrified to learn that his layoffs may soon be handled via home base video conferencing and his whole way of life may be "Up in the Air."
With his third film, director Jason Reitman ("Thank You for Smoking," "Juno") displays an impressive affinity for and control of his material. Taking the Sheldon Turner ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning") adaptation of the Waltern Kirn novel, Reitman adds two characters - Natalie and Vera Farmiga's ("The Departed," "Orphan") femme Bingham counterpart Alex - who not only add immeasurably to the complexity of the piece but provide roles for two actresses who could see Oscar call their names. In particular, Anna Kendrick, who charmed in "Camp," enters a pantheon of smart young indie actresses with a breakout resembling Reese Witherspoon's in "Election."
That "Election" reference leads to another observation, and that is the many parallels between "Up in the Air" and "Election's" writer/director Alexander Payne's "About Schmidt." Both are about solitary men who experience a life altering event and travel alone around America trying to reconnect, awkwardly, with family at a distant wedding where he has an amusing relationship with an in-law to be. I for one would much rather see the gifted younger Reitman under the influence of Payne than Diablo Cody dialogue.
"Up in the Air" begins with a montage of freshly laid off workers' reaction to the news and, as expected, they run the gamut of emotion (Reitman filmed in some depressed areas and used extras with real life experience). The suave and charming Clooney, who is as much an efficiency expert in travel as Natalie believes herself to be in grounding him, has a masterful touch in handling people receiving distressing news, ironic given how cut off he is from society. In an airlines club lounge, Bingham spies Alex, obviously another seasoned business traveler, and soon talk of car rental companies and airline miles has been given an altogether new twist, spicy repartee that segues into mile high club comparisons. Bingham is intrigued by a woman who seems to be as home without one as he is. They check their calendars and agree to hook up again when their paths cross in Florida.
Back in Omaha (Payne's home base!), though, Ryan sits horrified as the starched young Natalie outlines her teleconference plan with manufactured authority. Ryan challenges her methods to his boss and is rewarded with becoming her mentor and taking her on the road, baggage Bingham doesn't want. But, as it turns out, living on the road with two women begins a paradigm shift in Bingham's world view.
The role of Ryan Bingham is tailor made for Clooney, who has the ability to charm and yet maintain distance, but this film belongs to Kendrick, whose earnest ambition undermined by lack of experience is human and endearing. Kendrick is the one who makes it believable that Clooney turns father figure towards her. She's horrified when facing the reality of laying people off and, mid-trip, she's dumped by the boy she followed to Omaha to settle down with. Luckily, this happens in Miami just as Ryan's met up with Alex and the older couple council the younger woman before leading her into crashing a high tech convention party. Ryan so enjoys the faux family unit that he asks Alex to be his date to his sister's wedding that weekend in Waupaca, Wisconsin.
Reitman's film is rich in detail of place and character, even melding both with a clever device - Ryan's older sister Kara (Amy Morton, "Rookie of the Year," Broadway's "August: Osage County") persuades him to take a cardboard cutout of the bride and groom-to-be in order to photograph them against famous backdrops, pictures for the wedding. This pays off in so many ways, beginning with the fact that the cardboard couple is longer than Ryan's regulation carry on bag. Reitman chooses work locations that reflect current economic woes from Detroit to Phoenix to St. Louis and Wichita. Ryan's Omaha apartment is as sterile as his hotel rooms, but comes complete with bewitching neighbor who clearly was more at one time. The lodge in Waupaca is kitschy yet warm and Ryan's place in the ceremony changes in unexpected ways. Morton is down to earth and gently domineering as Kara while Melanie Lynskey (TV's "Two and a Half Men," "The Informant!") brings a soft melancholy to younger sister Julie. Danny McBride ("Pineapple Express") has already proven his comic chops, but his cold-footed groom Jim shows a surprising side and his timing with Clooney is a joy to behold.
As much as I liked "Up in the Air," however, I cannot understand its current standing as the film to beat for 2009's Best Picture other than its lucky timeliness in subject matter. The movie is enjoyable and relevant to today and finely crafted in every regard, but it isn't doing anything new, really. Having thought Reitman's first two films were both vastly overrated, it's good to see him moving in the right direction. This writer/director has command of his medium. Clooney and Farmiga are a beautifully matched couple, but their fate can be seen from 30,000 feet. The film deserves nominations in many categories, but it is Kendrick who deserves to win.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has the ideal job. He flies around the country, from one city to the next, to perform his necessary work as a corporate downsizer. The perks of his traveling – over 300 days a year – are close to earning him his most desired prize: 10 million frequent flyer miles. High technology and cost cutting, however, may jeopardize Ryan’s staying “Up in the Air.”
This is a sure fire hit for the holiday season with Jason Reitman (“Juno”) manning the helm of this George Clooney rom-com vehicle. As expected, Clooney is his usual charming, smiling self more in the vein of his movie star persona than his grittier character roles, as in “Syriana.” Ryan is a solitary soul who takes seriously his job as the outsourced corporate hatchet man that breaks the bad news to the poor folk who have lost their jobs. He greets their “What am I going to do now?” pleas with consolation and compassion, taking pride in his “personal touch.” It does not hurt that he is racking up all the travel perks – sky miles, hotel miles, priority booking, VIP lounges, rental car upgrades and the rest – and is well along in attaining his goal.
A wrench is about to be thrown into the works, though, when Ryan is told by his boss, Craig (Jason Bateman), that his traveling days are numbered and that teleconferencing to fire people is the wave of the future. The hatchet man is appalled with the idea of removing the personal touch from his job. He is further distressed when he is assigned high-tech go-getter Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) to tutor her in the letting-people-go process. Meanwhile, he develops an on again off again romance with fellow traveler Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga).
“Up in the Air: has been getting a lot of awards buzz but, aside from a wonderfully charming performance by Anna Kendrick, this is a mainly good meat-and-potatoes kind of movie. It is entertaining throughout but does not attain the greatness of the hype. Clooney’s dazzling smile gives Ryan more wattage than the character should have had but the actor gives a solid performance that has a note of inner emptiness. Vera Farmiga as Ryan’s love interest gets a nice arc of character that gives the ending a melancholy finish. Kendrick is my choice for best supporting actress.
Techs are first-class across the board. Cinematographer Eric Steelberg captures the look of traveling as one of the privileged few as Ryan bypasses all obstacles with a flash of the appropriate card. As he flies from one small city to the next, plying his trade, crisp aerial footage of each burg offers a travelogue of America. Anyone who has traveled for work, especially across the country’s heartland, will appreciate the view. Brisk editing, by Dana E Glauberman, gives the film a good pace, making the pampered rigors of Ryan’s travel inviting.
“Up in the Air” is a good holiday movie and intelligent filmmaking. I give it a B.
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