Friday, January 15, 2010

Up in the Air

Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Danny McBride, Melanie Lynskey, Sam Elliott, Zach Galifianakis

Running Time: 109 min.

Rating: PG-13

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

And so the streak continues for George Clooney. After years of the media bending over backwards to push him as the the savior of American movies when his acting work didn't support that inflated claim, he's only recently turned a corner to prove himself somewhat worthy of the hype. It started with Michael Clayton in 2007, continuing shortly thereafter with Leatherheads and Burn After Reading. While each film resulted in varying degrees of success, they were smart, interesting choices that revealed further dimensions to him as an actor. His latest role in Jason Reitman's Up in the Air is as perfect a fit for him and his acting style as we've seen mainly because of how the material plays to all his strengths. For three quarters of the film it presents a lot of big, timely ideas but does so in a mostly black and white manner, glazing over the surface of what could be a deeper story. Then comes that ending.

Much of the way through Reitman handles a sensitive subject with intelligence, but also kid gloves, avoiding any shades of gray or pushing uncomfortable buttons that would compromise its mainstream appeal. Then come the final 15 minutes in which all of my complaints are addressed and the events that occur call into question the real purpose of everything that came before. In other words, Reitman takes those gloves off and only the most cynical of audience members need apply. All the accolades and likely awards the film will receive are almost exclusively earned in its final act. I appreciated the rare display of brutal honesty, as at odds as it is with the rest of the picture.

Clooney is Ryan Bingham, a "career transition counselor" who makes his living firing people for companies whose bosses don't want to do it themselves. Racking up as many frequent flier miles as he can in his quest to reach 10 million, he leads a life free of personal connections and relationships. In his successful motivational lectures across the country, he urges others to do the same and "empty their backpacks" of all people and things weighing them down. But when Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) a spunky 23 year-old hotshot fresh out of Cornell arrives on the scene, Ryan's boss (well played by Jason Bateman) takes to her brilliant new idea of laying people off via teleconferencing, a method Ryan believes is not only cold and impersonal, but belittles his achievements. Before he's taken off the road though he has to show Natalie the ropes and contend with his growing feelings for a woman named Alex (Vera Farmiga), another frequent flier, and maybe the only person who truly understands his transient existence and can tolerate his narcissism.

According to Ryan, the ability to lay someone off effectively goes beyond being just a skill. It's a very delicate art. And as depressing and difficult as it is to watch the many firings that take place in a variety of different scenarios (some in which real laid off workers are used), these are the most fascinating scenes in the film because they prove him right. Studies have shown being fired ranks right up there with losing a family member on the stress scale, which makes sense. If you've ever talked to someone who had to do the firing you'll notice they still have a look on their faces like they committed murder. He has an incredibly specific technique down for handling the situation in such a way as to absolve the company of any guilt while creating the illusion for these people that their lives aren't completely destroyed.

Ryan is an expert at laying people off in a condescending way without the condescension. This is in stark contrast to Natalie who attempts to implement Ryan's techniques but lacks the confidence and experience to pull it off, coming across instead as cold and robotic. When Ryan tells these people that great leaders sat in their position at one point you're tempted to believe him not only because he puts on a good show but because the facts actually back him up on it. None of these layoffs are presented in a cookie-cutter way as a lot of these scenes really are brutal, but in depicting Ryan's personal plight the script doesn't cut quite as deep, at times feeding us a rather simplistic message that someone's life is worthless without a spouse and kids to share it with. Such a broad generalization is almost as condescending as the firings taking place over the course of the film, but luckily, Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner's script (adapted from Walter Kirn's 2001 novel) proves to have more depth than that.

That Ryan is supposed to painted as a first-class jerk is a bit of a problem as well since, as played by Clooney, he comes across as a pretty cool guy and the carefree lifestyle he leads is depicted (unintentionally?) as being a lot of fun. The parallel between character and performer works to his favor here like it never has before, possibly at the slight expense of the film. From him, arrogance comes off instead as admirable bravado and this role would definitely fall more on the "movie star" than "actor" side of the spectrum, which is fine. He's called upon to do more at the end. It's ironic that the movie never explores the idea that Ryan's lack of connecting ties in his life could be what's making him so effective at this particular job. He's compassionate, but is able to keep a reasonable enough distance to not crack when firing someone. Relative newcomer Anna Kendrick is excellent as Natalie, the ambitious young underling learning the ropes from a pro and their working relationship evolves interestingly in that they have a lot to take from each other. Ryan can't seem to connect emotionally with anyone on any level while Natalie, as career-driven as she is, is too emotional in her personal life and it starts to spill over. It's a tightrope walk, but Kendrick aces it.

As the love interest, Vera Farmiga is less successful than Kendrick in developing a three-dimensional character mainly because she's given less to work with in terms of screen time, at least until the movie's shocking turn of events in the final minutes. She's fine in the role, but I can't help thinking her turn has been slightly overpraised just because everyone is desperate to see her land a great part after doing so much work that's flown under the radar for the past couple of years. This isn't that part. Nevertheless, she brings the right amount of class and intelligence to Alex and shares great chemistry with Clooney.

It isn't until Ryan comes home to Milwaukee for the wedding of his sister (Melanie Lynskey) and fiancee (Danny McBride) that the script starts to cash in on all the ideas it laid on the table. There's a point where the story is sure to be headed toward the most predictable destination possible, but then takes a sharp, unpredictable turn. Without giving away too much, Reitman had a choice in presenting things the way they would end in a movie or how they would REALLY end. He very wisely went for the latter and it changes the complexity of the entire story. This is one of those rare cases where the final minutes do really cause you to reevaluate everything. How? That'll largely depend on perspective, but the movie's message becomes muddled in a good way and is far from being as simplistic as I had it pegged it at the start. Forget about traveling. This ending is so depressing and painfully realistic it's more likely to have audiences wanting to jump off a plane than fly in one. It also enables Clooney the welcome opportunity to do some heavy lifting in the acting department. His natural charm and charisma may carry most of this, but at the end we're reminded how effective he also is when the material pushes him to do more.

This is about as slickly packaged a piece of mainstream, Oscar-friendly entertainment as you can expect at this time of year, directed by a filmmaker who lately seems to have had that market cornered lately with Thank You for Smoking and Juno. It was a nice surprise to discover the film contained more of Smoking's bite than I thought it would, with enough depth that it could easily hold up to repeated viewings. While I'd hate to see it rewarded just on the basis of dealing with timely, hot-button issues, there's no denying the topics explored do really speak to where we are right now in terms of downsizing and how technology has in many ways made us more disconnected than ever. It's one thing to introduce relevant ideas, but another entirely to present them well in in an engaging story that leaves a lasting impression. Because of that, Up in the Air rises slightly above the safe, audience pleasing picture it appears to be on the surface.

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