No sooner do we get (back) to reviewing this year’s Oscar crop than we find ourselves staring down the barrel of the NEXT movie season. ‘Iron Man 2’? ‘Just Wright’? Already?!? WE NEED MORE TIME!! (Just…humor us.)
An actors’ movie
At once breezy, heavy, and
Filled with Clooney smirks
Once upon a time in a land called Who Cares?, Up in the Air was the movie to beat at this year’s Academy Awards. It was an adult comedic drama overloaded with the kind of stuff you roll your eyes at it sounds so blatantly false: a “timely, buoyant script”; “energetic performances”; a de-Juno-fied Jason Reitman. (Not to mention a feature article in American Way magazine, the premiere periodical of the skies!) Basically a movie just waiting for its Oscar night coronation, when it would waltz past James Cameron and Gabourey Sidibe en route to a tidy gold statue cleanup.
But anyone who remembers Sideways‘ Oscar luck in 2005 knows that we don’t live in Who Cares?, we live in FANTASYLAND. And Up in the Air, despite meeting — and exceeding, in my opinion — all pre-release expectations rises from the dusty cinematic battlefield of late 2009 as just another also-ran. A near-flawless, unfairly snubbed also-ran.
George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man tasked with firing people whose bosses are too scared to do it themselves. Fun! Work takes him all over the country, air miles accumulating as he hits companies in Detroit, Miami, Columbus — anywhere he’s needed. He is a nomad by profession and by choice, airborne 90% of the year…and LOVING IT. Just look at that contented facial expression!
Into his clean and predictable life step two ladies: a sexy fellow frequent flier (Vera Farmiga) who says she’s “[Ryan Bingham] with a [va-jay-jay],” and an ambitious young co-worker (Anna Kendrick) looking to revolutionize the firing business. Over the next 90 minutes they open his eyes, in ways both gentle and SHOCKING, to the world of messy human connection.
So Up in the Air is pretty big on airline humor! But what keeps it grounded (…), even in its more high-flying moments (………), is the strength of the performances. This is an actors’ movie, with tricky roles that require a surprising lack of vanity. Take Farmiga’s Alex, equal parts femme fatale, mature businesswoman, and (it’s hardly a SPOILER when the movie’s been out for months) total shithead. That’s tough to play! Or Kendrick as Natalie Keener, who takes what could have been a completely obnoxious caricature — the unnaturally-confident-despite-no-grasp-of-the-real-world Ivy grad — and turns her into a compelling and endearing character. Could her Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart pull that off? No way. Taylor Lautner is ripping his shirt off for the wrong girl!
Top billing and honors, of course, go to 13-time “Sexiest Man Alive” George Clooney, who manages to navigate that fine line between acting and recreation. Bingham isn’t the hardest part in the movie, but it’s Clooney’s most perfect role imaginable: a career bachelor, charming and content (or so he would think) with living a largely attachment-free life. SOUNDS FAMILIAR! This is dippy Kate Hudson as groupie Penny Lane in Almost Famous, or constipated Russell Crowe as Maximus in Gladiator — that perfect intersection of life experience and performance. Remember watching Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler and thinking “good God, those scars and weirdo fingernails are really his“? Same thing here, just with rakish grins and Brooks Brothers suits. Clooney leaving it ALL ON SCREEN.
Air has gotten some flack from critics for its effortless feel, the way Reitman makes a thoroughly enjoyable movie out of so thoroughly miserable a subject. But the “gloss” and “artifice” in question? They’re sort of the point. That’s Bingham’s life; that’s what he knows and (for much of the movie) wants. To lay the same criticism on Air you would a Nancy Meyers interior design porno like It’s Complicated is REALLY not getting this movie. It’s pretty, sure, but in a GOOD — and always story-appropriate — way. And underneath the slick production values? Some genuinely emotional stuff.
There’s a scene toward the middle of the film where Ryan and Natalie descend on a Detroit company already decimated by the Recession. They’re there to test-drive the new layoff software — firing employees remotely via webcam, rather than in person — and gauge the human response. Natalie goes first. Sticking to the workflow in front of her, she quietly informs the employee of his termination. She explains his severance package; his next step. It all seems to have gone smoothly. Then he breaks down in tears. (And not FUNNY TEARS.) The scene is played with utter authenticity, the pain and reality of the situation impossible to ignore.
Throughout the movie, too, there’s a sort of Greek chorus of fired employees discussing what it’s like to be laid off. These aren’t actors — they’re real people, fired in real life, brought in to recreate (or at least recall) one of the worst moments they’ve ever experienced. The hurt in these people’s voices, the sincerity with which they talk about their feelings of self-worth, their children…well, I’m crying thinking about it. The stuff cuts deep. And despite not being woven directly into the narrative (the motif is slightly jarring at first), they’re mirrored closely enough by the scenes with Zach Galifiniakis, J.K. Simmons, and the man fired in Detroit that we don’t question their inclusion.
In three films, Jason Reitman has really established himself most significantly as a director with an incredibly astute sense of tone. He’s interested in the human condition; he cares about people. That comes across on screen, where his movies connect no matter what the subject matter (or amount of Michael Cera). This could be the most depressing movie ever — a companion to the SO MUCH FUN Precious — but by expertly juggling light and dark, funny and sweet, he creates a movie that’s more than the sum of its parts. It just feels honest. He’s a real talent.
Hollywood doesn’t make many good adult movies these days. Or let’s be more clear: the studios don’t make many good adult movies. You’ve got your Pixar dependables, sure, that transcend demographics. Plus the rare event movie you don’t need to feel bad seeing (you’re weird if you DIDN’T catch Avatar). But any mature, thought-provoking film you saw last year that wasn’t created with computer help? More than likely an independent production created FAR from Hollywood. So when a polished, adult comedic drama manages to squeeze through the studio pipeline — gets past the executives Googling “Unused Marvel Superheroes” and stays CLEAR AWAY Katherine Heigl’s agent (where it would be turned, like magic, to complete garbage) — well, that should be celebrated. And seen. And encouraged to happen again. So keep on keepin’ on, Reitman & Co.!
Especially you, Anna Kendrick…
…You saucy minx.