Friday, January 2, 2015

From My Collection: Up in the Air Movie Review

Jason Reitman made a name for himself (outside of trading on his father’s name) by directing two sort of quirky small-scale character-driven comedy-dramas. Thank You for Smoking and Juno both had enough oddball screwiness to their premises and characters to get noticed. But Reitman’s third feature, Up in the Air, based on the novel by Walter Kirn, for which Reitman shares screenwriting credit with Sheldon Turner, his attention is turned toward real life drama. This is a film about a man whose job is to go into other companies to tell their employees that they’ve been laid off so that the bosses don’t have to get their hands dirty.

Up in the Air was the beneficiary of fortuitous timing, arriving as it did on the heels of the great economic collapse of 2008. The country was in tailspin as were the legions of workers who were out of work or fearful for their jobs. Reitman uses mostly real people who’d recently lost jobs and asked them to say what they actually said or wish they had said when they were fired. The result is a powerful montage of real emotions, not the manufactured actorly ones, but a kind of cinema verite, too awful to even contemplate kind of way. George Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham has to navigate these emotions, avoid giving in to them or letting them interfere with the job he has to do, but at the same time give them enough credence that the people don’t feel completely ignored. It’s a delicate balancing act. So is the casting. Clooney is so charming and likable that we just don’t mind watching him wreck other people’s lives. And his boss, Craig (Jason Bateman), with a boyish grin, gets a pass even though their company is succeeding aplenty on the backs of others’ misery.

Then in steps Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a recent college graduate whose novel ideas will help streamline the way they fire people. By using a remote online interface, they’ll be able to save millions in travel costs. Of course this is poison to Ryan, a man who prides himself on his lack of ties, his ability to live and travel from a single carry-on. He has airline travel down to a science. Ryan loves being on the road and having no significant relationships. Her presence and ideas threaten his entire existence. Ironically, one of his strangest arguments against her plan is the necessity of the human connection when you fire someone. These are his most significant relationships, the ones he has for a few minutes as he ruins someone’s life.

As much as changes is in the air for Ryan’s company and way of life, he’s also about to recognize how his absence from his own sisters’ lives has left him a secondary character, almost a stranger, in their story. He begins an affair with a woman named Alex (Vera Farmiga), whom he meets on the road and with whom he finds himself compelled to share his past with her. He brings her to his sister’s wedding and shows her around his town and old school. Our past defines us and informs the people we are today. To share it with someone we care about is to help them to know us better and to validate our own personalities. But then he discovers, significantly, that his own family lives as if he doesn’t exist for them. Who is he if there’s no one who considers him valuable apart from his boss? And even that value is beginning to be questioned thanks to Natalie.

After that discovery, just about the only thing that keeps him going is the belief that Alex is a kindred spirit, a woman who lives the way he does, with no connections outside of America’s many commercial airports. What he learns about her when he tracks her down out of loneliness upends his entire world view. Ryan Bingham is one of the saddest movie characters of recent years. By the time he actually learns enough about himself to make any real change, it’s too late. Alex represents the duality he never imagined having. He lives the fantasy and it’s empty. His greatest contributions turn out to be convincing his sister’s fiancée (Danny McBride) to go ahead with the wedding after getting cold feet and writing a glowing recommendation for Natalie’s next job after she decides at her young age that she doesn’t want to wind up like Ryan and Craig. The hope in the story is only with her. The rest is pretty bleak, but I guess in 2009 most of the country was teetering on the edge of hopelessness. Up in the Air may not translate well for contemporary or future audiences. It was very much of its time (only five years ago).

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