Friday, December 4, 2009

Up In The Air

Have you recently lost your job? Is your business suffering because the consumer market is on a severe down? Have you felt the repercussions of the poor economy in any way, shape or form? If you are living anywhere in America right now, you probably answered “yes” to one of these questions. And if so, I highly recommend that you see this film. Director Jason Reitman has once again crafted a movie that drives its message home by focusing on characters through lightweight existentialism. Much like his prior films, Juno and Thank You For Smoking, Up In The Air takes a typically nontraditional protagonist and gives us a rare window into their unconventional existence. Reitman co-wrote the screenplay with Sheldon Turner, whose previous work is limited to mediocre horror film remakes and a bad Adam Sandler movie. Although it is based upon Walter Kirn’s novel of the same name, the film takes a vastly different approach than the original story. I would not be surprised if both Reitman and Turner take home an Oscar this year for their lofty adaptation.

George Clooney & Director/Screenwriter Jason Reitman
Reitman brings this typically unspoken situation of losing one’s job into the limelight and parades the victims around in a less than exalted manner. And through this, we ourselves see venerability, fear, and honest human emotion. The film begins with a montage of everyday people’s reactions to loosing their everyday jobs. Reitman employed real people, not actors, for this segment. Each one had recently been terminated in their real-life jobs and were asked to reenact what they actually said (or wish they’d said) when they found out the bad news. This sequence was an excellent introduction into the storyline that relates present day economic realities without trivializing them. Now even if you’ve been fired yourself, you probably haven’t seen someone else’s response to such a situation. It is far more unpredictable than most have ever witnessed. Firing a coworker is typically the last thing that anyone wants to perform them self, nonetheless someone has to do it—enter Ryan Bingham.

George Clooney as Ryan Bingham
Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, is a “career transition counselor” for Career Transition Counseling (CTC), an Omaha-based company whose sole responsibility is to intervene on the daunting task of laying-off employees for corporate executives who are too gutless to handle it themselves. “Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it's because they sat there that they were able to do it.” This is Ryan Bingham’s borderline cliché response that he systematically feeds to people who are now eligible for unemployment benefits. In fact, much of the way Ryan manages his life is cliché. He believes in efficiency and opportunity above all, he lives for his job, and he has little affinity for anything else, including his home, his lovers and even his family. Clooney astutely combines his dramatic talents with the witty natured zeal that he has come to be known for. Ryan Bingham consumes us because of Clooney’s charismatic portrayal of this otherwise menial man. This is someone who spares no luxury while commuting from city to city for work, but lives in a barely furnished studio apartment that overlooks practically nothing. He boasts, “Last year, I spent 322 days on the road, which means I had to spend 43 miserable days at home.” Clearly this man has attachment issues. But putting the psychoanalyst hat aside, Ryan himself seems content with his impersonal existence and interprets this as “happiness”.

Clooney & Vera Farmiga
At a pivotal point, Bingham chance encounters another travel-holic in an airport lounge named Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) who seemingly lives as he does. Alex is a leggy, intelligent, full fledged romantic operative, who is basically the female version of him. She is his match in more ways than one. Almost immediately after they meet, the two quickly swap stories and business experiences, comparing each other’s privileges and membership perks in a series of inquisitive double-entendres. For people of their background, this is an obscure form of foreplay that eventually leads to them sleeping together. Before calling it a night, Alex assures him, “I am the woman you don’t have to worry about.” Farmiga has a magnificent connection with Clooney in this film. Their chemistry forges the characters like two elements of hydrogen with oxygen. They play off of one another’s complications and leave most everything else beyond the bedroom at the door, so we think.

Clooney hasn’t been this well matched since Brad Pitt in the Ocean’s Movies, and he’s not even a love interest. Farmiga delivers a confident and assertive performance while still maintaining a Baby Boom sense of feminism. We have seen this from her before in Scorsese’s The Departed, but not in so intricately a manner. Alex exposes a side of Ryan that few people have been able to do and we begin to see a side of him that is vulnerable, compassionate and human. She inadvertently lures Ryan into new territory, becoming his “plus one” in more ways than one.

Anna Kendrick as Natalie Keener
This revelation comes about almost directly as a result of Ryan’s recent interaction with his new protégé Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). She is a fresh-out-of-college recruit who concocts the idea of conducting layoffs remotely over the internet in order to cut overall company expenses. This threatens Bingham’s very lifestyle and he immediately objects to the concept. He asserts that Natalie is too young and too inexperienced to understand just how difficult firing someone can be. As a result, his boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), assigns him to teach her the ropes. She soon embarks on her training under Ryan. From the very beginning, he imposes his travel standards upon her. One of his first lessons is on getting through airport security, “Never get behind old people. Their bodies are littered with hidden metal and they never seem to appreciate how little time they have left. Bingo, Asians. They pack light, travel efficiently, and they have a thing for slip on shoes. Gotta love 'em.” Natalie righteously objects, “That’s racist.” “I'm like my mother, I stereotype. It's faster.”

Clooney & Kendrick with J.K. Simmons
Natalie quickly learns that there is a lot more to firing people than just reciting a memorized script and handing out unemployment packets. Kendrick creates a character that is naive not only about her new job, but about how the world works and more importantly, how people work. When her long time boyfriend breaks up with her via text message, she has a complete emotional break down. Ryan’s response is, “Wow. That's kind of like getting fired over the internet.” And so Natalie finds herself at a point in her own life where she too is left to question her circumstances. So many young actors are inadvertently bred to be lazy when it comes to matters of true emotion—not Kendrick. Her youth does not hinder her presence in this role in the slightest. Her Broadway background carries onto the screen as we witness a performer who capitalizes on individual expression and inner monologue before all else.

Reitman has crafted another fantastic portrayal of human happenstance that everyone can identify with, even if they can’t relate to specific incidents. This kind of consistency in his films is a rare sign of true film genius. Clooney, who already has a reputation for his commitment to making quality films with substantial story lines, also manages to impress. He proves again that despite his movie star status, he has integrity in his work and depth in his acting abilities. Much of the reason why the story is so alluring is because of the circumstances that surround Ryan Bingham. When he says, “To know me, is to fly with me,” we believe that his existence revolves around frequent flying and business ventures that are anywhere but home. But he soon discovers that he is much more than that and in the process, we too discover that he is much more than that. In the beginning, Ryan thrives on his isolation and independence, but realizes soon enough that perhaps life is better with family, friends, and loved ones. This film stretches beyond just the predicaments of firing people from their jobs. It is a profound insight into this man's life and how he manages to find a more profound sense of happiness than he ever knew.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Bottom Line: A splendid contemporary glimpse into one man's ventures that induces us to reflect upon our own lives

"Help Yourself" performed by Sad Brad Smith

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