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Movie Review: Up in the Air (2009)

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As the release of Up in the Air drew near, positive buzz began to swirl. I saw talk of it being the best picture of the year and George Clooney's performance being one of the best of the year. Of course, I bought into the hype a little bit and went into my screening rather anxious about what I was about to experience. When the film was over, I was left there with a smile on my face. I really rather enjoyed the experience, although I was not left with the warm idea that this was the best of the year. I will admit there is something edgy and special about the film. It may not be at the top of the year's best films list but it is a singular experience that I am glad to have had.

Director Jason Reitman (who also co-wrote the script) has crafted a film that is the antithesis of what we expect from Hollywood. It is the anti-blockbuster, if you will. It is filled with lingering shots and sedate camera movements, and prizes dialogue and performance over effects and speed. Reitman (son of Ghostbusters helmer Ivan Reitman) has a mere three films under his belt, but they are all accessible films made in the Hollywood system that have an intelligence that should be celebrated. I find his work fascinating in that a pattern is emerging from the projects he works on — his films are identifiable as Reitman films yet do not have a stand-out visual style. Perhaps that is his style, to stand back and accentuate the content, let the screenplay and the actors tell the story. He is an interesting young talent with a bright future.

Up in the Air is about our relationships and the ways that we disconnect ourselves. Our society seems to continuously move away from the intimate relationships, content to deal with our friends in a more abstract way. This movie shows relationships that are up in the air, in a state of flux as a new reality intrudes on their turf.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is at the center of it all. He is a road warrior, a man who spends the vast majority of every year on the road. He is a proud member of a number of traveler rewards programs and is in love with the perks they bring. His goal, aside from his job, is to reach a magic number of frequent flier miles, a number he is a little shy in talking about.

Bingham is in the business of firing people. When companies do not have the guts to fire staff, they turn to the company Bingham works for. He sees it as a necessary service, shuffling people out of their jobs and helping set them on a path of future success. It is a lonely job but one he relishes as he travels from state to state and city to city.

Into his life comes Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow road warrior and someone in whom Ryan finds a kinship. They embark on a relationship of convenience as their paths cross time and time again during their travels. His life is further complicated by Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). Natalie is a business rival who introduces us to the impersonal concept of firing by webcam.

Both of these women have opposing views of life and their expectations of it. Bingham's outlook on life is challenged by both. Will his minimalist life be able to withstand the chinks in the armor that these women find? Do not be fooled, the lives of the women also reach a crossroads. In a way their varying viewpoints arrive at just the right time to make them all question the paths they have chosen.

It is an interesting film. Watch as they stick to their guns and their way of life only to have their beliefs shaken in subtle but important ways. It is not so much a question of whether they will come out unscathed but of how much collateral damage will be left in their wake.

On top of the understated, yet effective, directing, ease of pace, and intelligence of script, Up in the Air features strong performances. At the forefront is George Clooney. Clooney has often been compared to Cary Grant, an apt comparison as Clooney seems to be cut from that old school cloth. He does seem like the classic sort of movie star who may not always display a great amount of range but knows how to use what he has to great effect. He has an effortless charm, endless charisma, and hits all the right notes as Bingham, a man who appears content, but who I suspect hides a deep loneliness that he does not wish to acknowledge. Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick both bring a confidence to the screen.  Farmiga is a strong character who knows what she wants while Kendrick has a certain confidence, but the cracks are evident.

Bottom line. All things considered, this is a very strong film. Jason Reitman brings a maturity to the project that keeps it focused. It is a film that asks questions that we all need to ask ourselves about the way we approach our lives and relationships. It is a timely film, considering the topic of firing and our current economic state. It is a timeliness that adds to the poignancy of what it has to say. What else need be said? Go check it out.

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