Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review: "Up in the Air"

What a breath of fresh air. "Up in the Air" is brave and true and unexpected.

It starts with a premise -- about people losing their jobs -- that is dour and daring material for a Hollywood film; and it ends in a way that is not tragic or fake-happy but feels like it has concluded exactly the way it should, and yet confounds expectations.

The movie, one of the year's finest, was directed by Jason Reitman, who after "Thank You for Smoking," "Juno" and this movie should be considered the top young filmmaker working today. Reitman and Sheldon Turner have co-written (from the novel by Walter Kim) a finely-tuned script that is hard-wired into the central nervous system of a country fretful about economic ruin.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a seemingly soulless corporate flunky who spent 322 days last year flying around the country telling people they've been laid off -- and he resents the 43 he had to spend in his antiseptic little apartment in Omaha.

The tribulations of modern travel that are so vexing to us -- the endless lines and numbing connection waits and impersonal security checkpoints -- Ryan takes to these like duck to water. His wallet is filled with a kaleidoscope of elite member cards that he waves like magic wands, transporting him to the front of all lines and making hassles vanish.

When we first meet Ryan, he is doing the thing he does so well: Telling people their jobs no longer exist. He does this respectfully, but firmly; he is prepared for his "clients" to cry, or fume, or even threaten and insult him. His job is to fire workers whose bosses are too cowardly to do it themselves, and with a minimum of legal exposure.

"We're here to make limbo tolerable," Ryan instructs an associate.

The scenes where Ryan lets people go are wrenchingly authentic. Reitman directs dozens of real people who have lost their jobs -- plus a few recognizable actors, like J.K. Simmons -- through their paces without a single false note.

With one in six Americans unemployed or underemployed, these sequences will have a special resonance for many in the audience who have had that soul-crushing experience themselves.

(They certainly did for me; my newspaper job became "no longer available," to use the movie's parlance, almost exactly one year ago from the day I saw this film.)

Two developments arrive to throw Ryan's life for a loop: His own job is about to become obsolete, and he meets a female version of himself who inspires him to think about pitching his suitcase permanently.

First, the former. Anna Kendrick plays Natalie, a 23-year-old hotshot who wants to make the impersonal nature of job layoffs even more so. Her idea: Save the expensive travel costs for people like Ryan and do the terminations via computer teleconferencing.

Even Ryan, who in his spare time gives de-motivational speeches urging people to dump all their personal baggage, is appalled by the indignity. But his bottom-line boss (Jason Bateman) wants to try it out.

Natalie's ambitious, but not a bad egg, as Ryan discovers when he takes her along on one of his extended layoff trips. Kendrick gives a layered, deeply-felt performance as a young woman who has a lot technological know-how, but knows little about how people tick.

Vera Farmiga plays Alex, Ryan's fellow traveler, who has quickie hook-ups with him whenever their flight plans align. It's a wonderfully perfect arrangement for two people who shirk any emotional tie-downs. When Alex tells Ryan that she is "the girl you don't have to worry about," his face glows with bliss.

I've already written 600 words about this movie, and could easily go another thirty score. Suffice to say that Ryan's journey is just beginning. The scene where he asks his stranger of a sister permission to give her away at her wedding, and is refused, packs as much emotional punch as anything I've seen this year.

For a story about a guy who spends his life "Up in the Air," this movie carries a bundle of weight.

3.5 stars

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