Tuesday, December 29, 2009

High, High "Up in the Air"

Up in the Air

* * * * / * * * *

Jason Reitman, part of the new generation of Hollywood royalty (he's the son of producer-director Ivan Reitman), emerges as a full-blown craftsman in his third feature "Up in the Air," a whimsical drama that nails the zeitgeist of our anxious nation. After the overblown and broad satire of "Thank Your for Smoking" and the well-intentioned but over-written sophomore effort, "Juno," Reitman has here made a film worth celebrating and discussing, not only for how seamless he makes it all seem, but for how much craft and consideration is actually afforded the film. Beat to beat and moment to moment, it's one of the most organically realized American dramas of the year.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is on the cusp of 10 million frequent flyer miles. Darting across the country, his company loans him out as a "transition counselor" to other companies to clean house and give recently-fired employees packets on how to turn their devastated lives around. Bingham's philosophy on life is appropriately cynical and detached; he takes far more solace in business class drinks and Hilton suites than he does the mundanity and emptiness of his Omaha apartment. For him, life is about being untethered, and the planes and his job give him the opportunity to stay on the continual run from forming a "real" adulthood.

But Bingham's also a creature of comfort. With economical voiceover and magnificently edited introductory sequences, Reitman gets us into this man's routine: he packs the same things, gives the same speeches, swipes the same card at the same kiosks. This changes first when he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a sexy frequent flyer who makes him to start thinking about a long-term relationship as they occasionally hook up for flings and parties when their schedules cross. It changes again when his company implements the new media ideas of Natalie Kenner (Anna Kendrick), who wants to put the whole company on webcams. Bingham, in an effort to dissuade her, takes her on a multi-week tour of "how to fire people."

"Up in the Air" is, for the majority of its runtime, one of the most easily digestible films of the year. Co-written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, its plot is not particularly unique or interesting, its character - despite his insistence on an odd philosophy - fairly typical embodiment of the delusional man who needs to realize his faults. It's a story about learning through others, about finding love and accepting others as part of your life. In short, communication - a theme constantly stressed through its absence. Natalie wants to fire people over an impersonal webcam, people form and end relationships through text message, and Bingham's credit cards inform his elite status in the business world. His relationship with Alex is confined by its impersonal nature and Natalie can't communicate because she can't look past her idealized vision of what her life should be.

But "Up in the Air" would be nothing without its well-timed story about people making a payday off the misfortune of others. Reitman intersperses several montages of individuals reacting to being "let go" throughout, and he hired real recently laid off people to improvise these moments. It's a trick that could come off as wedged, forced, sentimental but instead it provides the perfect undertone, reminding us of the human stakes on the opposite side of Bingham's swagger. And while at first we're invited to agree with him, enjoy his mechanized lifestyle and luxury, we soon realize how wrong he is, and how trapped he feels. These real people deliver their lines as good as any of the "professional" actors, in part because Reitman affords them the space to emote, to profess their stinging disappointment.

The performances are all magnificent. Clooney oozes his brand of superstardom, with his delicious smile peering through his increasingly bare wrinkles. Reitman exploits his star's intoxicating glamor, but Clooney also demonstrates his impeccable sense of timing - he throws out informed bits of pseudo-psychology and witty banter as if they were well-rehearsed in front of a mirror, as if he must repeat them to himself in order to stay sane. When he tries to open up to Alex, we feel him torn between his facade and his longing. When he battles Natalie, he hides behind his macho professionalism to mask his growing contempt for his job.

Likewise, Farmiga exudes perfect mannerisms that bring her into full life as an actress. She's not just seducing Clooney, she's his spiritual equal - an elitist yearning for something more, a conflicted and daring woman who can enter verbal sparring matches and cast her eyes with just the right pitch. They're competitors as much as perfect lovers. And this says nothing of Kendrick, the film's stunning center. Though she tries to play predator (and makes her character appropriately annoying), her inability to maintain a facade makes her the most realistic and identifiable character, the necessary agent through which Bingham can understand his own flaws. Take, for example, one of the film's best scenes: Natalie puts her philosophy to the test by firing a man through a webcam. He breaks down in tears; she can't comfort him through the computer. Conflicted, she simply snaps: "There's nothing more to discuss." She has too big a heart for her job, but refuses to crack. There's nothing particularly surprising about how the scene plays out, but Kendrick pushes her character through a demanding cycle of emotions, and Clooney - confined to the sidelines of the firing - shares her pain as she tries to stay professional, where quick glances and subtle adjustments in the pace of the editing help make the emotions and their effects stick.

More than the great direction of the writing and acting, the film is superbly crafted. Take cinematographer Eric Steelberg's choices. When Clooney, marching through an airport, remarks over the phone that he's "not alone," but "surrounded by people!" it's shot in very soft focus, with all these people blurry and distant - reinforcing that he IS alone. When Natalie and Ryan fire people, the set-ups are fairly simple and edited in a very standard fashion - medium close-ups and two-shots keep everything tight, but his insistence on using over-the-shoulder shots usually keep two characters in the frame shows the scenes' intimacy while also maintain a firm sense of space.

Also wonderful are editor Dana E. Glauberman's choices. She's fast becoming one of my favorite editors because she's able to use lots of great little tricks while never abandoning the sense of continuity. She knows when to linger on actors, how to make beats work by cutting on lines, but also how to enforce the idea of repetition - such as a great little scene where Clooney packs his suitcase and moments where he strolls through airports. These moments pop, while others gently sizzle, like a boat-side conversation between Ryan and Alex, where each twist of the face feels intimately exposed. There is a kind of synchronization between how the actors perform the moments and how they're edited that's rarely seen in comedy or drama of this kind. It's always done with subtlety.

As "Up in the Air" glides into its descent, propelled by a subplot involving the wedding of one of Ryan's sisters to examine Ryan's place in his own world, and whether or not he's capable of making a positive change for himself, it hits the perfect sting of bittersweet - one of the most difficult emotions for a film to capture. But everything in the tone and motion seems tinged with this existential examination that refuses to elicit full sympathy for Ryan Bingham. Reitman and Clooney seem to agree he's a man who suffers for his own choices, and his emptiness is fully felt.

Watching "Up in the Air," I was reminded of films like Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," films that perfectly capture moments in society by examining complex and interesting characters struggling through an interaction with that society. It has such a gloss, such an assured charm, and harbors all the best characteristics of screwball comedy and character drama. It begins and ends in the clouds, as if Reitman had slid his camera down into the world of Ryan Bingham, dissected him, and flown away - leaving us to ponder his future and fate.

It's not an easy ending, and without giving anything away Reitman still reminds us that Bingham's there to fire people, and those people all have to struggle with their own transitions. But as silly as it may seem, maybe there is something to be said in the politically safe term, "career transition"? After all, aren't airports just transition locales? Airplanes the ultimate device in mass transit? Ryan Bingham is a man trying to complete this transition, and in his personal crisis of self-discovery and philosophical realignment, Jason Reitman has arrived as a virtuoso directing talent with a deeply felt love for his craft, his writing, and his characters.

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