Monday, December 28, 2009

A Movie Review: Up In The Air (2009)

Up in the Air (2009)

Director - Jason Reitman
109 Min; R

Ryan Bingham - George Clooney
Alex Goran - Vera Farmiga
Natalie Keener - Anna Kendrick
Craig Gregory - Jason Bateman

Following the critical success of his two previous films (Juno; Thank You for Smoking) director Jason Reitman seems to be on his way to a trifecta with the just released Up in the Air, a film which does an excellent job at weaving distinct story lines into one coherent and cohesive picture. It certainly appears that George Clooney’s agent is earning his paycheck, as there really could be no better fit for the character of Ryan Bingham who spends the majority of his life on airplanes and in hotel rooms all while in pursuit of one of the most special recognitions frequent fliers can obtain – major, major mileage accrual.

Of course a film just about a guy collecting airline miles would probably become as dull as flying all those miles every year, and thus we have the reason for his travels, or travails as it were, Ryan fires people. He works for a company that is paid by other companies to do the dirty work of corporate downsizing, in person, and to do it professionally. Business is booming for the company, which, of course means lots of people are losing their jobs. Welcome to present times. It is soon revealed by his boss Craig (Jason Bateman) that fresh-faced and spunky Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has proposed an idea that has been accepted on a trial basis which effectively grounds all the ‘road warriors’ from doing their jobs. Firings will no longer take place in-person; instead, to save a lot of money the company will be testing a new tele-conference system which allows the company to conduct all its business from Omaha.

For some the idea of a life more grounded and full of routine is a welcome announcement, but for people like Ryan, it is all but a death sentence. The need for a family and a home are not pressing, and he spends some of his time at speaking engagements where he presents his view of ‘unpacking items from your backpack of life.’ But now there will be no more coming and going, working at your own pace, on your own terms, meeting who you want, when you want, as he comes to do with a fellow traveler herself, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), or even just the welcome solitude that the road life can bring to some people. Sure Ryan has his moments, as most do who travel extensively for work, where he feels the isolation. Clooney does a very good job at portraying the range of emotions a person like this goes through – sometimes in love with the lifestyle, other times wishing for something more ‘stable.’ It is, after all, not a lifestyle suited to everyone.

The film becomes a mentoring project as Ryan takes Natalie on the road for some hands on training in the art of firing people all while awaiting the implementation of the new cold and more heartless video system firing makes its debut. Keener is a by the numbers tough chick eager to make her mark, while Ryan is a man who has perspective on his side. Together the two make an interesting couple with a nice dynamic, and ultimately it is Clooney who really pulls off this part of the film, with this well times smirks, nods, and just his general ability to make his character very believable, which isn’t always easy to do with someone like Ryan, who lives a life most people cannot relate to on any real level. After all, most people get married, buy a house, have kids and go to the same job at the same place most days, so for the audience it takes an actor like Clooney to bring us into his character’s world and keep us there, not wishing for him or against him really, just realizing him for what he is as that character.

Casting many real-life people who have been let go in this manner ads a nice touch to the film and lends some realism to the scenes. A film that is ‘about firing people’ is also very much about a personal journey for two very different characters, and the different ways in which they choose to find something out about themselves. The film does not overly glorify nor condescend the life of the ‘road warriors’ but finds a nice balance.

I’d like to add a personal note of bias to this review, as I myself am very much like Ryan, with a road warrior job that keeps me on the move as much as 40+ weeks in some years (and yes, collecting miles and hotel points is a major part of my life), and the portrayal in this film is very fair. To oversimplify the character would have been an injustice, but not as much as if it had been overdone and preachy, trying to force us to feel pity for Ryan. In the end, I felt like I had watched a slice of someone’s life who I can relate to, but I never felt like I was being asked to judge him, and I thank the director for that touch.

***** out of 5

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