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Josh Reviews Up in the Air

Director Jason Reitman continues his winning streak with his third film (after Thank You For Smoking and Juno), Up in the Air.

George Clooney (continuing to prove that he is a far better actor than you might think a fellow with his movie-star good looks and fame would need to be) plays Ryan Bingham, a man whose job is to fire employees at companies whose bosses don’t have the desire or the guts to do so themselves.  Every day, Ryan flies to a different city, back-and-forth across the United States, to fire different people from a different company.  It’s a job that most would probably find tremendously distasteful.  But Ryan loves it.  It’s not that he gets pleasure from firing people.  (Actually, he’s quite skilled at helping newly-fired employees get over the shock and anger of being fired — and by someone they’ve never met, to boot — and he seems to enjoy the moments of human connection when he’s able to help one of those unfortunate souls find some shred of a silver lining to their situation.)  It’s more that he loves the unattached, free-as-a-bird lifestyle that his constantly-traveling ways allow him.

Ryan relishes having no ties.  His apartment (that he barely sees) is completely empty and unadorned.  He isn’t married, doesn’t have any kids, and is distant from his family.  While most Americans would probably side with me in hating the experience of flying, Ryan loves it.  He relishes having frequent flyer cards and valued customer status at airlines, car-rental organizations, and hotels across the country that enable him to zip in and out (cutting ahead of the rest of us poor folks waiting in endless lines) with just the swipe of a gold card.  He loves staying in hotels, he loves having a drink in airport VIP lounges, he loves flying.  In Ryan’s mind, he is entirely free.

Ryan’s perfect-to-him life is shifted, though, by two developments.  One is positive: at a hotel bar one evening, he strikes up a conversation with a beautiful woman who, it turns out, is just as much of a travel-junkie as he is.  The woman is Alex, played by the luminous Vera Farmiga (Matt Damon’s girlfriend in The Departed), and she and Ryan seem to immediately realize that they have each found a special connection with the other.  The other change is much more negative to Ryan: an ambitious young woman named Natalie (Anna Kendrick), newly hired by his company, has developed a system in which Ryan and his peers can fire people without every leaving their company headquarters.  Instead of paying enormous sums to fly back and forth across the country, they could instead use today’s modern web-cam software to simply set up video links with the companies who hire them.  While his boss (Jason Bateman) is ecstatic, Ryan is devastated by the threatened sudden end to his jet-setting ways.

Up in the Air is a marvelous concoction.  It is a dramatic film, but contains a lot of  humor as well.  It has a somewhat outlandish hook (Ryan’s lifestyle is an extreme one, to say the least), but is populated with characters who are refreshingly human.  Jason Reitman balances all of the elements well, keeping a lot of different tonal plates spinning while never allowing the film to shift too hard in one direction or the other.  (In less skilled hands, this movie could have been a real bummer ,or, on the other hand, a frivolous comedy with no dramatic depths.)  I did get a bit worried for a few minutes during the film’s third act.  The visit to Ryan’s sister’s wedding and what happens at Ryan’s big presentation both were story points that shifted uncomfortably close to Hollywood movie cliché.  Thankfully, the film quickly regains its footing and settles on a more ambiguous ending which seemed much more in line with what had gone before.

Mr. Reitman is ably assisted by a top-flight cast (no pun intended).  George Clooney brings a tenderness to Ryan that was surprising, and creates a main character who one can’t help but root for despite his rather abhorrent profession.  Vera Farmiga is equally compelling as Ryan’s mirror image and romantic partner.  She is a hard-working business-woman who avoids falling into any simplistic “bitchy” stereotypes.  Rather, Alex is warm and friendly, and the connection she forms with Ryan is well-realized.  Anna Kendrick also brings a great amount of depth to her role as the young woman, Natalie, whose actions threaten to overturn Ryan’s life.  As the film progresses, we get to know Natalie a lot more than I had at first suspected, and I was pleased to see her begin to learn just how much she had to learn without ever being made to look stupid or idiotic.  (In many respects, actually, she might be right in terms of the many areas in which she disagrees with Ryan!)  Jason Bateman doesn’t have any jokes to crack but is still terrific in his brief role, and talented folks like Zach Galifianakis, J.K. Simmons, Sam Elliott, Danny McBride, and many others do a great job in cameo roles.

Up in the Air isn’t an earth-shattering film.  It’s not the most dramatic film you’ll see this year, nor the funniest.  It won’t have the cultural impact that Juno did, that’s for sure.  But it’s a smart, adult little movie, and it’s well-worth your time.

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