Movie Review – Up in the Air (2009)

by NIR SHALEV

Thank You for Smoking (2005) introduced Jason Reitman as a proficient film writer and director, Juno (2007) confirmed that he’s the real deal, and now Up in the Air assures us that he’s here to stay and that there’s no one better at delivering a recognizable, contemporary screwball comedy. This is easily one of the best films of 2009; it carries one its best performances (by George Clooney) and the screenplay is pitch perfect. This is not just a topical film but also an excellent time capsule film; looked back on in twenty years’ time it will remind us what the first decade of the 21st century was really like, technology and language-wise.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a suit. His job is to fly around the country to many companies and fire their employees because their bosses don’t have the guts to do it themselves. He’s been doing this job for many years and had racked up hundreds of thousands of frequent flier miles. He’s very proficient with words, is neat and tidy, quick, and handsome. He’s also a confirmed bachelor and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ryan’s boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) informs him one day that the company is grounding all of its employees because it’s switching to firing people over a webcam; the method is quite crude but apparently effective. Immediately Ryan is angry and astonished because a) it’s been his lifestyle for decades and b) a much younger female employee, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is to be taking over the department and its new method of operation. He is then tasked with dragging Natalie with him across the country to tutor her in the ways of his job so that she can learn what it’s actually like to fire people in person, and why he believes it to be more effective.

While on mission in Dallas Ryan meets another suit named Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga). Who she works for is unmentioned but they hit it off immediately and very well, and plan to meet up again and soon. We see them open up their laptops while facing one another and add a shared detour to their schedules. They don’t try to develop a relationship because they’re happy with being a couple of attractive singles who meet in secret once in a while. They also make love many times and in many different hotels.

The film presents several aspects. We see the surface aspects of our current way of life and how technology had advanced and has taken over our lives for better or for worse. We see how much we “value” our current technologies and which of them are truly necessary. We see what it’s like to be fired in 2009, what with the economic crisis in the U.S. and we also get to see the ones doing the firing; the cowards and the heroes. (Ironically, the “heroes” of the film are the defined villains; they’re the bad guys who are able to sleep at night knowing how their jobs affect others’ lives.) The film also touches on young versus old. Natalie is the young one, equipped with a PhD in psychology, one which is completely irrelevant to her new task at hand and Ryan is the old, with the graying hair and air of experience. She relies on the technology surrounding us all and what she’d learned in school; he relies on his ability to perform his task with ease because he’s world-wise and experienced. But something truly and greatly is lacking for them both.

This is to a certain degree a period piece that happens to be set in contemporary times. It presents us with what’s there and what’s wrong with what’s there; what we take for granted and what we don’t do about it. I may sound crotchety but I’m only 28 years of age, however even I can easily tell what is unnecessary and what is taken advantage of. This film is a reminder that “progress” really should be thought about in detail ahead of time.

Jason Reitman, son of famous writer/producer/director Ivan Reitman, is masterful at his job. His directorial style in this film is plain and straight to the point, and therefore perfect. Yet he still manages to fill up each frame with what is necessary to tell the story: symbolism is always present and so are simply items that remind us of the time in which we live. I expect that a second viewing of the film would reveal even more visual symbols and metaphors. While the film also sometimes feels like a down to earth indie film, at the same time it comes across as high class material through and through.

All the actors are on the level and are endearing. They perform their characters naturally and with a tad bit of realism, never forgetting that it’s only a movie. However, the standout performance is by Clooney. George Clooney received an Oscar award in 2006 for his portrayal of a CIA agent who realized that his superiors are behind the biggest conspiracies he had investigated. That film is Syriana and it’s a tough and perceptive drama/thriller. This film is another reason why the Academy should take notice of his great skills as an actor because here he clearly channels the lost but not forgotten actors of the golden years of Hollywood. He’d already been defined as the Cary Grant of his generation and in this film he really hits the nail on the head as a variation of Clark Gable; and I can sense a tiny touch of William Powell too.

To label this film a standard comedy would be wrong and to label it a drama would be a misstep, also. Up in the Air has all the ingredients of a successful screwball comedy. Just as in Frank Capra’s classic screwball comedies, this film exists in “the now” and portrays everything as it should; also as a Hollywood film should without portraying too much realism. It never subjects itself to formulas and its third act is revelatory in the way that it remains true to itself and resolutely avoids turning sappy. I will definitely watch this film again simply for the way it approaches its subjects with love and care and without gloss. It’s a good looking film but purposely it isn’t shiny.

4 stars

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Possibly related posts: (Commentary Track generated)

Commentary Track review of Up in the Air by Helen Geib.

George Clooney is a long-time Commentary Track favorite. Read our reviews praising his performances in Burn After Reading and The Men Who Stare at Goats.

11 responses to “Movie Review – Up in the Air (2009)

  1. I’m glad you liked it, Helen!

  2. I didn’t – that is to say, I haven’t seen it yet! Nir loved it though. :-)

  3. Maybe the critic’s name should be larger and bolder? I made that mistake before with one of Tom’s reviews.

  4. Ooops. Well, I’m glad you liked it Nir.

    Did you notice the well placed use of the Velvetine Rabbit?

  5. Umm.. would I freak you out if I didn’t know of the Venvetine Rabbit?
    You need to educate me for I did not grow up in North America.

  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Velvetine_rabbit

    A stuffed toy is well loved by a young boy but boy becomes sick and all his belongings will have to be burned. Instead of being burned, the toy rabbit becomes a real rabbit.

  7. Oh. Where does it fit in the film though?

  8. Well, the book is all about becoming “real.” That is going through life and learning to cope with all the burns and bruises that it can give you. Essentially it’s about becoming an authentic human being.

    Thematically, I believe this relates to Ryan, since he avoids interacting with others. He secludes himself from the world to being hurt. It’s not until the end that he begins his journey towards “realness.”

  9. Ahah! I see; nice one. And now I know! Thanks!

  10. A nice movie with a good message, although I’m not sure I can completely buy Alex’s character. Great performance from Clooney.

  11. @Helen, told ya!

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