Given that in the past two weeks I have passed through eight different airports and slept in four different hotels, there were times during Jason Reitman's new film, Up in the Air, that I felt I was watching my own life pass before my eyes. That and the fact that, like the film's protagonist, I practice a profession in which one makes far more enemies than friends. Reitman's film, which is screening in Toronto a week after its unofficial "sneak preview" in Telluride, stars George Clooney as a man who spends so much of his life in transit that he's lost all sense of direction. Indeed, home for Clooney's Ryan Bingham isn't his spartan one-bedroom near the home office in Omaha, but rather the anaesthetic comforts of business class, goals like marriage and children having long ago taken a back seat to dreams of rarefied strata of airline, hotel and car-rental rewards programs.
If it's Tuesday, this must be Wichita. Or St. Louis. Or any of the other stops from sea to shining sea where Bingham -- a third-party hatchet man hired by companies too timid to do their own firings -- touches down just long enough to do his dirty work, rarely giving a second thought to the scorched earth he leaves in his wake. Business is, after all, business, and as the U.S. economy implodes, Bingham's business is booming. That said, he's a prince of compassion compared to his efficiency-minded junior colleague (scene-stealing Anna Kendrick), who has developed a system of termination via teleconference that would eliminate the need for messy in-person encounters and also save the company bundles in travel expenses.
Reitman has said he began writing the Up in the Air script (which he adapted, with Sheldon Turner, from Walter Kirn's 2001 novel) all the way back in 2003, before Thank You For Smoking and Juno,
and before he himself became a husband and a father. You can feel that
evolution in the finished film, which starts out as a glib corporate
satire very much in the Smoking vein and ends up a surprisingly
mature, bittersweet comedy about a man in the grips of an existential
dilemma: Where, indeed, do I go from here?
The movie also
captures the zeitgeist now in a way it wouldn't quite have a
half-decade ago. Reitman even went so far as to cast the roles of the
movie's laid-off workers with non-professional actors drawn from the
ranks of the recently unemployed -- a stunt that could easily have
seemed crass (Big Hollywood extending some charity to the proletariat),
but which, within the context of a mainstream entertainment, manages to
put an affecting human face on an evening-news statistic -- far more
successfully, I might add, than Michael Moore's latest dog-and-pony
show, Capitalism: A Love Story.
Up in the Air
strikes me as Reitman's most accomplished work to date -- not the
second coming of Billy Wilder (as some of the hyperbolic chatter in the
Twitterverse has suggested), but a very smart, human, classily directed
movie that doesn't bend over backwards to be loved by the audience (as Juno
sometimes did) and is all the better for it. It's also just about
perfectly cast -- obviously so in the case of Clooney, who fits snugly
into the role of a man who uses his natural charm to deflect serious
emotional commitments; less obviously so in the case of Vera Farmiga,
who seems relieved to cast off the weight of heavy melodrama (Down to the Bone, Orphan)
and flex her tart-tongued comic muscles. Playing a character not in
Kirn's novel -- a smart, sassy fellow traveler (literally) who
meet-cutes Clooney in a hotel bar -- she may be the best romantic
sparring partner the actor has ever had in a movie. "Just think of me
as yourself, only with a vagina," she advises, by which point she
realizes she had him -- and us -- at hello.
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