Friday, December 18, 2009

Film review: 'Up in the Air' smartest movie of the year

George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air.

By Hap Erstein

For once, we have to give the Golden Globe Awards credit for recognizing the smartest film in this year’s batch, Up in the Air, with a field-leading six nominations.

The only catch is they have misunderstood the movie enough to categorize it as a drama, where it is actually a very dark satire of corporate America, recession division, and the “career transition counselors” who help to downsize it.

It would be easy to mistake this smart snapshot of today’s impersonal business world for a drama, for it has none of the crude bodily fluid jokes or broad physical schtick that Hollywood executives feel more comfortable marketing. But having seen the film twice -- once with a handful of reviewers and the second time with a theater packed with civilian moviegoers -- I can assure you that there are plenty of laughs in this smirking morality tale.

Considering how the studios attempt to homogenize and simplify their movies for mass consumption, Up in the Air is the third little miracle from co-writer/director Jason Reitman, who previously gave us such nuanced, formula-defying fare as Thank You for Smoking and Juno.

He bases his screenplay (written with Sheldon Turner) on a cunning little novel by Walter Kirn, who conceived the character of carefree, frequent flier points-obsessed firer-for-hire Ryan Bingham (a supremely smug George Clooney), but it is Reitman who figured out how to humanize him and ultimately humble him.

Ryan has not only adjusted to his emotional pain-inflicting career, rationalizing that he is eliminating jobs with empathy, but he thrives on the increasingly annoying exercise of maneuvering through airport security and spending most of his life in airports and planes. Then again, home for him is a sparsely furnished, highly impersonal bachelor apartment in Omaha, headquarters city of the company that handles the workforce reductions for corporate executives who do not like to get their hands dirty.

One of Reitman’s more inspired moves is casting mostly non-actors -- in fact, actual recently downsized workers -- in these firing sessions, in which they reenact their being let go. Because of the long lead time of movies, much of this was set in motion long before the economy came crashing down on us, leaving Up in the Air with unnerving currency and poignancy.

Clearly Ryan is due for a comeuppance and it arrives in the unlikely person of recent B-school grad Natalie Keener (terrific, wound-too-tight Anna Kendrick). A child of the computer age, she proposes to save the company on travel expenses by firing through video conferencing, an even less humane way to learn that your lifeline has been severed. This, of course, would effectively ground Ryan and cut off his stream of frequent flier points. In a desperate effort to restore his clipped wings, Ryan takes Natalie on the road to show her what the firing game is all about.

Whammy number two for Ryan is meeting Alex Goran (the slinky, wily Vera Farmiga), a kindred spirit road warrior with whom he slips into a casual commitment-free affair, agreeing to hook up whenever their travel schedules mesh. Naturally, unattached and unapologetic Ryan falls hard for Alex.

In a character-rich tangent that could almost be another movie entirely, he takes Alex to his small town Wisconsin hometown for the wedding of his younger sister. This sequence has a different look and feel, goes up to the edge of sentimentality, but seduces us into rooting for the two of them to inch towards a more concrete relationship.

Reitman’s casting choices are impeccable, and the success of Up in the Air -- it has a lock on one of this year’s Best Picture Oscar slots -- should do big things for Kendrick and Farmiga’s careers. Reitman is also gradually building his own informal rep company, with vivid supporting work here from Jason Bateman (Juno), Sam Elliot (Thank You for Smoking) and J.K. Simmons (Juno).

Up in the Air is a comedy for these times, but it is also smart enough to still be worth seeing long after the cloud of this recession has lifted.

UP IN THE AIR. Studio: Paramount; Director: Jason Reitman; Starring: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman, Sam Elliott, J.K. Simmons. Rated: R. Opens: Dec. 23; playing now in select theaters

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