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Up in the Air (2009) ***1/2

March 13, 2010

written by: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
produced by: Jeffrey Clifford, Daniel Dubiecki, Ivan Reitman and Jason Reitman
directed by: Jason Reitman
Rated R: for language and some sexual content
108 min.
U. S. release date: December 23, 2009
DVD & Blu-Ray release date: March 9th, 2010
I’ve recently spent some time in airport terminals and was reminded that along with museums and ER waiting rooms, they are the perfect locations for people gawking. Here everyone is equal in that they are waiting for a flight, it may even be a connecting flight. Watching people falling asleep while reading or hunched over while plugged in to any random tech device I noticed that random lone passenger sitting solo at the bar and I thought of Ryan Bingham, the protagonist in “Up in the Air”. I thought of how a frequent flyer like Bingham (George Clooney) can come across as anyone to anybody but in the end wind up with nobody. A disconnected soul waiting for a connection without realizing the need to connect.

Once again, writer/director Jason Reitman serves us characters that are cold and clever. The kind you’d wind up resenting getting trapped in a conversation with yet you can still relate to and empathize with in some way. Amazingly, with only three films under his belt, Reitman has yet to deliver a misfire. I predict that at some point in his future he will win an Oscar for either directing or writing, perhaps both. When this film first started appearing on the cine-radar, the blips from the trailers indicated it might be a feel-good rom-com for guys with enough eye candy for all come date night. Alas, like Reitman’s previous films, there is more going on here than beautiful people exchanging witty banter. It ends a story that is difficult to summarize and/or explain, such like life and real people which is what this film consists of and why many will be left feeling saddened. I may have felt that but I give all talent involved credit for making a film about real people, something quite rare.
Working from a novel by Walter Kirn, co-writers Reitman and Sheldon Turner, provide the actors with the kind of characterization and dialogue that an actor dreams about. The story they’re given is an oxymoron in that it is an engaging plot that depicts emotionally void characters. Bingham is a job terminator who gives motivational speeches encouraging others to keep themselves free of any relationship ties. If you’re always on the move, going from one airport to the next, what’s to hold you down? He’s hired by corporations and flown around the nation solely to let an employee know that he or she will no longer be needed. Something that in the current economic climate, could send anyone into a downward spiral. It’s also a job that should be emotionally traumatizing to anyone in touch with their humanity.
Clooney is cool enough in the role to handle any precarious emotional response dispensed his way. Bingham really does see his job as a service. He’s not immune to the human condition. As gorgeous as George is, it’s not hard to see how shallow he really is. The only goal he seems to have is an insurmountable amount of frequent flyer miles. With the way he works around any travel glitches and handles ticket counters as well as hotel concierge, it would appear he knows how to handle everything.
It wouldn’t be much of a story though if there weren’t any outside elements that lead Bingham to reassess where he is in life. It takes three women to do so. His younger sister (Melanie Lynskey) is about to get married and while he appears ambivalent, he comes to eventually see how his family has needed him and where his self-absorbtion has left them. Alex (Vera Farmiga), is the only woman in his life and the female equivalent of himself, yet remains someone he hardly knows. As he manuevers his way around these relationships we start to see that he does have compassion somewhere in his compartmentalized soul, he just doesn’t know what to do with it.
But it’s the third woman that tailspins Bingham’s well-tested life philosophy. His boss, (Jason Bateman), pairs him up with young and idealistic Natalie (Anna Kendrick) who has the idea of doing his job via video-conferencing. Just when we thought Bingham was cold, imagine getting the ax via computer monitor! He knows it won’t work. He knows that the terminated need a human sitting in front of them to react or vent to. This approach would also take him off the road and since the road is his home, we get the idea that this is a guy who wouldn’t know what to do standing still. To prove her wrong, Bingham takes her on the road but didn’t plan on examining his own life in the process and what direction he’s steering it.
Clooney knew that the character of Ryan Bingham seen onscreen would be compared to his off-screen self but the idea of playing a characterization of how the world sees bachelors like himself was probably too hard to pass up. It helps that he is self-deprecating already and is willing to try just about any role on for size, but in this role we see a welcome vulnerability to balance out his undeniable charisma. We know that he can deliver a line with that sly grin but here we see a man facing himself down with not much to answer for. It’s a situation that seems all too plausible and real which is all the more attractive. With his subtle and masterful articulations of emotion combined with tactful timing, this is easily one of his best performances.

As much as this is Clooney’s film, credit must be given to his supporting actresses here that really flesh out who he is. He’s a wounded man caught between the confidence of his routine and what he sees as the pitfalls of emotional connections. He has to decide what to make of himself and Alex as well as how far should he step back into his estranged family. Some of Clooney’s best scenes are the ones in which he takes Farmiga’s Alex with him to his sister’s wedding. We see his routine layers peeled back to expose who he really is and find out just how frightening that is for himself. The end result of his relationship with Alex is more realism than we are used seeing in Hollywood. It leaves the viewer with a somber, overall lonely tone yet also on unsurprising one at that.

As the catalyst of the film, Kendrick has a difficult role and one in which she balances excellently. She could easily have come across as an over-acheiving annoyance but like Clooney does with Bingham, we slowly see her reveal she’s not some heartless automaton. With her youth and naiveté, she provides a refreshing flipside to the seasoned characters portrayed by Farmiga and Clooney.

It’s only when Natalie is introduced that Bingham starts to take stock of who he is and where he’s going. Throughout that process, Reitman does well to show (not tell) the pain he is causing those who are losing their jobs. He mixes reliable actors like J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis in with people who have actually been let go in real-life. These are some of the best interactive scenes, where we see Bingham become this psuedo-life coach immediately after delivering the hard news. So good is he at talking to others about their lives, that he almost sells himself on his pitch. Like when his sister’s groom (Danny McBride) gets cold feet and winds up ironically convincing (and possibly himself) that connecting with people is all that matters.

The standout cast deliver some laugh-out-loud moments along with genuine romance but what makes this film rise above any typical conventions is how the overall tone exudes authenticity. That can be found in a surprising revelation toward the end of the film that I honestly didn’t see coming which resulted in an ending some may consider depressing. While that was my immediate assessment, in retrospect it’s an ending that sees Bingham’s future both up in the air and also wide open.

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