Saturday, December 26, 2009

Clooney Among The Clouds And Uncertainty

Up in the Air

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has what some would consider the worst job in the world: he's the man who has to tell other people they no longer have their job. He does the job that bosses and employers don't want to deal with, and so people like Ryan get hired to do just that. The thing is that Ryan loves his job, and he takes it as performing a service to others, something that demands procedure and protocol, both of which Ryan makes sure to have in order. He has no home and no family. While flying on a plane and asked where he lives, Ryan responds with "here."

If Ryan were played by any other actor aside from George Clooney, this man probably would have been despicable; however, with the snarky smarts of Clooney, he's relatable and likeable. His performance holds the same depth he brought to "Michael Clayton" where he also played a man whose soul was in jeopardy. Except here you'd swear that he's just playing himself, which allows it to seem so effortless. Director Jason Reitman ("Thank You for Smoking," "Juno") has pulled off something of beauty with his third feature, "Up in the Air," and Clooney is at the center of it. It is an intimate and scalding character study while at the same time a brilliant and aware cultural study. This is our culture, the state of the nation we live in. It's hard to pull off timeliness, but this movie does it with ease putting a face on the recession and the crisis of unemployment. It is cynically funny but also deeply sad while romantic but also unapologetic and real, and it's a clear example of what we need to see more often from major studios. It is a movie of our time and our moment, and it's the best of 2009.

Ryan spends his detached life flying around the country with endless supplies of passkeys to hotel rooms and airport lounges and with the best deals with those companies. He's a valued customer carrying around special VIP cards, and he especially has his eye on reaching a certain mystical number of frequent-flyer miles. This goal he holds in the highest esteem. He knows the ways of the airport and has perfected the systematic lifestyle, one which America is more and more leaning toward. It's a world of Blackberry, text messaging, and fitting each other into a tight schedule programmed into a laptop. Most importantly, it's a lifestyle of downsizing and not only in the workplace. On the side, Ryan gives self-help lectures where the topic is keeping the load of your rhetorical backpack as light as you can. The people he talks to are exactly the kind of people he fires. Ironically, however, Ryan is forced to literally carry around a piece of his family; it's a cardboard cut-out of his sister (Melanie Lynskey) and brother-in-law (Danny McBride) with which they want Ryan to take pictures of the places he goes.

Threatening Ryan's own job is the talented young Natalie (Anna Kendrick of "Twilight") who offers a promising solution of grounding the firings and completing them over the Internet. It would make what Ryan has lived for all his life entirely obsolete. In an attempt to scare Natalie, Ryan agrees to take her along to show her the ropes and what firing people can really do to one's sense of humanity. They even make a stop in, yes, Detroit, and they don't hesitate in making it seem to be in the worst economic condition. Ryan and Natalie's sparring is a delight because Natalie has fast-talking comebacks that catch even Ryan off-guard. Their relationship isn't at all meant to be romantic as that is saved for a fellow frequent-flyer, Alex (Vera Farmiga), who Ryan meets in an airport lounge. She's a corporate shark just like him, and she has a biting sensuality that is irresistible. To Ryan she describes herself as him just with a vagina. Both Kendrick and Farmiga are already up for award nominations, and rightfully so. They are pitch-perfect in their parts each relating to Clooney's character in different and complex ways and each peeling back more layers as things progress.

The movie is adapted from Walter Kirn's 2001 novel, and it feels so shockingly in-tune with the state of today's society all thanks to a screenplay from Reitman and Sheldon Turner and polished, sharp-eyed direction from Reitman. In the sequences where people are given the news, those aren't actors. Reitman auditioned real people who had really lost their job and told them to articulate their feelings for the camera. That stuff hits home. Actors are interspersed into this footage, as well, including Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons.

"Up in the Air" has a title that not only refers to the act of frequenting air travel but also the feeling of being unemployed, the uncertainty and the unpredictability. To those people everything is up in the air. In the closing moments, Ryan looks straight into the audience with a look that is hard to define, one that could be of either hope or pain. The film is optimistic and pessimistic all at once, and it is finely nuanced in both directions. Is Ryan's future bleak or not? And what does that mean for everyone else? We've captured an era on-screen while it's still happening, and the only thing that can be said for sure is that everyone needs some company, a co-pilot.

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