Monday, December 14, 2009

Gliding, rather than soaring, "Up in the Air"


directed by Jason Reitman
starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Melanie Lynskey, J.K. Simmons, others
based (loosely) on the novel by Walter Kirn

True to its title, “Up in the Air” is about a man who’s only comfortable when in flight. Flight from what? From nothing and everything: fundamentally, from being grounded. But the question the film’s really concerned with is not what drives such a man, but what it takes to bring him down to earth. That focus proves to be both its strength and its weakness.

The man’s name is Ryan Bingham, and he prides himself on his state of permanent transience. First-class cabins, airport lounges, and hotel suites are his home, Hertz is his garage, and airline and hospitality employees are his friends. His most cherished goal is to gain admission to the one million mile club, and his motto is to carry as little baggage—of both the material and personal kind—as possible along the way.

He’s also good at his job, as only someone of his disposition could be. It’s a line of work most people would find intolerable: Downsizing companies hire him to deliver the bad news to their downsized employees, a task he performs with such smooth professionalism and such a credible imitation of empathy that it’s hard to imagine anyone other than George Clooney playing him at all convincingly. Still, Ryan’s job is clearly just a means to an end, in that it allows him to subsist on fleeting moments of connection that never need to be developed into anything more or require him to put down any roots anywhere. Naturally he feels threatened when a fresh-faced young Ivy League graduate, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), arrives at his company with a revolutionary proposal—sack the schmoes through the Internet, save travel costs!—that threatens to up-end not only his business M.O. but his entire way of life. His only defense is to show her what he does and why firing via webcam is such an inadequate substitute.

The premise of “Up in the Air,” which uses clips of interviews with non-actors who were really laid off to underscore the impact of Ryan’s work, is at once timely and timeless, if a bit implausible. I’ve read conflicting accounts on whether or not traveling axe-men exist in reality, but even if they do, I find it hard to believe in entire companies that exist only to help lay off other companies’ employees. I found it even harder to believe that anyone in this purported business would take Natalie’s innovation seriously, as it hardly seems calculated to improve a service of already-dubious value. Still, the movie gets a lot of mileage out of her interactions with Ryan (Kendrick’s and Clooney’s comic timing is gold, and they play well off each other), and there’s a certain witty consonance between the different brands of isolation that Ryan and Natalie represent—the former with his gospel of traveling “light” and never stopping, the latter with her belief in the powers of going “glocal.” Inevitably, the two characters learn from each other that their philosophies simply can’t account for all the vagaries of human nature, especially the need for genuine, lasting human connection.

You may think you know where the story is going, especially once Ryan crosses paths with Alex (Vera Farmiga, never sexier), a fellow frequent flier who seems at first glance to be his female counterpart, at second his potential soulmate. But don’t be too sure: the script, which was co-written by the director, Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Thank You For Smoking”), and loosely adapted from a novel by Walter Kirn, throws a curveball or two that may disappoint some viewers and pleasantly surprise others. The result is a very watchable, frequently very funny, and occasionally poignant film that strives to convey a deeply conventional message while simultaneously subverting a conventional narrative structure. Whether the one tends to undercut the other may depend on the individual viewer’s opinion of the message. If you’re already a believer in what the movie’s selling, you’ll likely see its approach as nuanced; if you’re a skeptic, you may see it as merely muddled.

In any event, much of “Up in the Air”’s effectiveness derives not so much from the writing as the acting. This is especially true of the two principal women in the movie, whose presence and rapport with Clooney are so strong they tend to conceal a certain thinness of characterization. The latter might be a deliberate choice, especially with respect to Alex, but the fact remains that she and Natalie are chiefly important not for themselves but for the reaction they elicit from Ryan. As for Ryan himself, he remains an enigma, even after we learn a little more about him and see his vulnerable side exposed. Yet he manages to acquire a gravitas, a claim on our sympathies, that can only be attributed to the depth of Clooney’s performance. That’s not to diminish its value; quite the contrary, it’s to his credit that our emotional investment in him feels honestly, if imperfectly, earned.



Blogger ToastyKen said...

My feeling about it is that the message itself was kind of disappointingly trite, but they way they conveyed it was quite charming and interesting. If you follow Ebert's adage that it's not what a movie's about, but rather how it's about it, then it was a good movie, because I really liked how it was about it. I just didn't like what it was about all that much. Found it surprisingly heavy, and the tone uneven.

5:11 AM  
Blogger lylee said...

I know what you mean, and I largely agree with you. The movie's been sitting better with me than I thought it would, but I too am not crazy about what it's about, or appears to be about.

1:26 AM  

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