Friday, December 11, 2009

Film Review: Up in the Air

Up in the Air – a funny, sad, naturalistic and polished dramedy from co-writer/director Jason Reitman – is undeniably a contender for the 2010 Academy Awards. Yet it has no elaborate costume or set design, James Cameron-engineered digital effects, an epic narrative or even propulsive drama. This comparatively small film by Oscar’s standards will rack up nominations but should win only the smaller awards by no fault of its own. It just isn’t that breed. This is the kind of winter film that's comforting in its bleakness and uncertainty and doesn’t flaunt production value but instead sees it as economic cache.

Reitman's solid antecedent comedies, Thank You for Smoking and Juno, laid the bricks for his best feature yet. It doesn’t hurt that he's the son of the guy who made Ghostbusters.

An apotheosis of the George Clooney persona, Ryan Bingham flies 270 days a year as an expert layoff specialist, formally dismissing employees from companies around the country when the bosses lack the cojones to do so. It’s an unusual job that has manifested itself into a life mantra for never having to really know anyone.

“How much does your life weigh?” asks Ryan at the podium of motivational seminars. He coaches traveling professionals on the mentality of someone with a successful, baggage-less solitary existence. Home in Omaha for Ryan is torture. Not because of sour relationships with his sisters or painful memories but because he lives for traveling. “No man is an island” means zilch to him.

He meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), sleek, sultry and professional, whose occupation is never revealed, in a cocktail lounge. They hit it off right away. Alex is even shallower than Ryan and requests keeping their relationship strictly business-sexual. “Think of me as you with a vagina,” she says.

Then, enter Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a 23-year-old precocious Cornell grad has new plans for the company – upgrading from in-person layoffs to cost-saving video chat firings from the Omaha office. Ryan’s boss (Jason Bateman), absolutely smitten with the whiz kid, strongly considers it but first sends Natalie on the road with Ryan for a series of corporate send-offs.

The sight of two people nervously preparing to deliver bad news to an unsuspecting American taxpayer triggered déjà vu ala The Messenger. And Ryan’s seminars reminded me of the faux-profound nature (thanks to Carter Burwell) of Clooney’s speech about the Massey prenup in Intolerable Cruelty.

No doubt this new depiction of romance and seduction is as impersonal as the coupling of 21st-century technology and the application of sociology. Witty, sexual banter is exchanged via text messages, and post-coital activity includes Ryan and Alex logging onto their adjacent laptops to check flight times and layovers.

Critics swooned over Up in the Air in the past month for being delightfully modern, which certainly makes Ryan’s senseless detachment from family, dependence and commitment a relatable flaw. Although Reitman shows the hardship and adversity the recession has incited, he probably will ironically make a healthy sum from it.

Clooney has amassed plenty of mileage in a decade and a half, and he delivers one of his most complete performances in this role. Farmiga, who more or less faded into the back of The Departed’s decked-out ensemble, may finally have a chance for meaty roles in the future.

The screenplay, adapted from Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel, doesn’t shy from corporate lingo and appropriates fearlessly astute dialogue within romantic scenes, a rarity in post-George Cukor and post-Howard Hawks cinema.

There is a great scene in a hotel lounge in which Natalie, who was recently dumped by her boyfriend, and Alex take turns describing their ideal life mate while Ryan listens. Alex’s standards for a man are much lower than Natalie’s, though both desire a figure of status. The 15-year gap between them is vast, and Natalie can’t imagine a life without the potential for perfection.

Before the film digs itself into a hole of depression, it bursts out with a happy hour of sorts. The two large-group events in the film include the tech convention after-party and Ryan’s sister’s wedding. Natalie’s drunken exuberance in the former and Ryan and Alex’s closeness in both scenes are sportively amorous yet also sincere.

Actors known for their comedic relief - Zach Galifianakis, J.K. Simmons (Reitman regular) and Danny McBride – have small bit parts in essentially serious roles. McBride is given one of his first roles since All the Real Girls to prove he can actually act.

The soundtrack plays to the strengths of the wavering tone. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings’ sassy version of “This Land is Your Land” is the opening number, and somber, folky tracks from Crosby, Stills & Nash, Elliott Smith and Roy Buchanan fade in at the right moments.

The story gets blotchy in its final ten minutes. Some surprises and the jumpy cuts to suitcase handles and airport terminals dizzies up the mise-en-scene in an otherwise smooth conclusion for the characters.

While still an unlikely pick for Best Picture, Up in the Air scores a lot of points for pathos. Reitman's film offers a refreshing blend of classical star wattage and a potently contemporary perspective that forge a connection with the audience on many levels despite an overall elegiac tone.

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