Thursday, December 10, 2009

Up in the Air: Best Film of the Year? (movie review)

Up in the Air, a terrific and timely comedy directed by Jason Reitman, has opened in several cities nationally, and will open soon in the Tampa Bay area (the 12/11 opening has been bumped). My review will be published in Folio Weekly, and I'll link to it here. Meanwhile, here's the full text.

Up in the Air Stars George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick. Directed and written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, adapted from the Walter Kirn novel. 109 minutes; rated R.

Anyone ever fired, thereby joining a club whose membership has lately expanded at an alarming rate, understands that losing a job is a bit like experiencing a death. In one fell swoop, you're suddenly separated from the people, the place and the professional obligations you've come to know so intimately for months or years or decades, not to mention the income that has supported your way of life.

That reality takes center stage, thanks to a series of interviews with real-life laid-off workers mixed in with cameos by such actors as Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons, in Up in the Air, filmmaker Jason Reitman's follow-up to 2007's critically acclaimed Juno. "This is what I get in return for 30 years of service?" one man asks, in disbelief.

Those montages make for humane, poignant touches, adding to the topical currency of a movie that's as funny, smart and sexy as any American film released this year. No matter if the ending is a little pat, and viewers are left feeling somewhat less than emotionally engaged by any of the characters in Reitman's script, adapted from the Walter Kirn novel of the same name.

The angel of career death, regularly descending from the unfriendly skies to drop the axe, is Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), road warrior for a company whose employees do the dirty work for clients unwilling to handle the nasty chore of firing employees. The movie's opening sequence, all split screens and overhead shots of cities and farmland, deserts and mountains, charged up with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings' soulful, hard-grooving R&B version of "This Land is Your Land," defines the protagonist's territory.

Delivering the bad news -- "You have an opportunity here, Bob. This is a rebirth," he tells the just-fired aging worker played by Simmons -- the coolly efficient, smooth-talking Bingham is bad, and nationwide: He flies to Dallas, St. Louis, Wichita, Kansas City, Des Moines, Detroit and all points between, occasionally touching down in Omaha to visit the home office of the optimistically named Career Transition Counseling. In voiceover, he says that last year he spent 322 days on planes and in Hilton hotels, rental cars and airport bars, and the worst part of it all was those 43 days he was stuck at home.

Bingham's itinerant lifestyle is threatened by the arrival of young go-getter Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who convinces their CTC boss (Jason Bateman) to agree to a new scheme, a plan allowing the company to accomplish the firings via video link, thereby cutting the travel budget by 85 percent.

But prior to the launch of the new system, Bingham is asked to take his young colleague on a road trek to experience the firings first-hand. At the very least, he figures he'll keep moving toward his goal of notching 10 million air miles.

When Bingham isn't bickering with Natalie or working toward a grudging respect for her, he's spending his emotional and sexual energy on leggy, attractive Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a female road warrior who knows and loves the language of elite-status cards.

The two meet cute in a hotel lounge, weave sexual double entendres into a discussion of frequent-flier miles, and continue to let the flirtation heat up in his room. Later, she sets relationship ground rules: "I am the woman you don't have to worry about," says Alex, who comes off as the perfect match for a man who does seminars on avoiding personal commitments. "Sounds like a trap," he retorts.

Like its lead character, who likes to say "the slower we move, the faster we die," Up in the Air moves at a brisk clip, seamlessly jumping from scene to scene, slowing down only during a section set in Wisconsin, where Bingham travels to attend his younger sister's wedding.

Emotional breakthroughs play a part here but, as might be expected from the director of Juno and Thank You for Smoking, the storyline moves in some entirely unpredictable directions.

Anyone counting on a straight-out romantic comedy, as some of the movie's ads have suggested, will be disappointed. The rest of us will leave satisfied by the vibrant performances, intelligent script and sure direction of a film with few noticeable flaws and plenty of sour-sweet appeal.

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