Friday, December 18, 2009

Love: Up in the Air

In the beginning, George Clooney may have been a little easy to write off. He was your typical television star turned charismatic movie actor. He went for the roles that you might expect a good looking, tongue-in-cheek guy like that to take: romantic comedy leads, blockbuster superhero flops, small action films. That lasted a few years. Slowly, though, Clooney's direction has shifted. From partnerships with the Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh, Clooney's roles became more substantial, his film choices impressively varied, his turns in the director's chair impressive. In spite of the fame, he knows when to step into the shadows (Good Night and Good Luck), when to step forward (Michael Clayton), he seems to rarely compromise and take the money maker, when there's a smaller film that could use a higher profile status upgrade. All of this has been done with a suave self-assuredness, and if its that last bit that has prevented you from giving in to the old Hollywood charm of George Clooney, Up in the Air is the antidote.

Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a "career-transition" agent who acts as a sort of corporate assassin flying from city to city, firing whole lists of people from downsizing corporations so managers can save face. Ryan is at home in the sky. He has dozens of cards accruing millions of frequent flyer miles, hotel preferred club credits, car rental elite status, he takes comfort in them. His undecorated, spartan apartment is only lived in for roughly a month out of each year and when he has a day or two, he hosts motivational seminars extolling the virtues of being able to fit your life compactly into a backpack. If he sounds like your typical devil may care Clooney bachelor, he sort of is, yet, Clooney plays Ryan in a way that seems to hit remarkably close to home. There's a vulnerability, a very human quality that surfaces in Ryan early on. As Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a 23-year old upstart sweeps into his company with big plans to revolutionize the art of the termination with video conferencing, Ryan finds his entire way of life at risk and in question. In charge of showing young Natalie the ropes, Ryan is confronted with the rest of life outside of O'Hare, Dallas/Fort Worth, McCarran, and LaGuardia and forced to interact with humanity for a time longer than it takes to fire someone.
The themes of Up in the Air are timely, and if it weren't for writer/director Jason Reitman's (Juno, Thank You For Smoking) deft handling of the inherent humor in many of the situations, it would make one hell of a tragedy. We see a country in the midst of economic collapse, in which the elasticity of relationships is challenged and human contact is easily exchanged for technological distance. Ryan Bingham goes through the film touting the virtues of such an existence, he thrives off of it. He's aggressive and cynical, able to ignore his siblings and push the hardships of the individuals he deals with entirely out of his mind. The film carries the viewer from airport to airport and interaction to interaction with a sophisticated wit constant momentum. We are brought into Ryan's world, with him 100% and not permitted to dwell in any one place too long or to allow the sadness of the situation to sink in. Good thing. Up in the Air is consistently amusing, Reitman understands that the focus of his story is not the film's real tragedy, and keeps the atmosphere light.

Clooney plays well against Kendrick and is well-matched in Vera Farmiga, who stars as Ryan's love interest with a comparable lifestyle ("I'm you with a vagina", she tells him). The interactions are key, and every little detail counts towards the bigger picture. As Ryan begins to experience a sort of accidental sea change, the audience goes through small revelations with him. While any half-perceptive filmgoer can suspect Bingham's inherent frailty, its arrival is a sight to behold. Clooney makes the role sparkle and fools you into believing that the production of a character so natural, off-puttingly likable and sympathetic might actually be the easiest trick in the book.

I won't go so far as to say that Up in the Air is the finest film to appear in cinemas this year, but it is undoubtedly amongst them. Well-paced storytelling and high quality understated acting make this a timely work well worth catching.

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