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Movie Review: Up in the Air (2009)

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“They just don’t make’ em like they used to.” Or so I’ve heard a person or three say about today’s movies. Well, I’m happy to say, Up in the Air proves them wrong.

I love Hollywood movies from the ‘40s. Their smart dialog often has the rhythm of characters wittily engaged, sometimes at odds, sometimes in cahoots, and often both at the same time. Movie stars knew how to draw on the charms that made them stars in the first place and movie directors knew how to simply get out of their way.

I’m thinking about movies like Casablanca and Double Indemnity. And, yes, I’m saying Up in the Air has these same qualities and is just as good, or at least almost as good. It’s a welcome breath of fresh air.

The movie is timely. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who spends his life flying around the country laying off white collar workers. He takes great pride in his ability to sweet talk these unfortunates out of obvious reactions like turning office furniture upside-down, pouring bleach into community coffee pots, and jumping from tall buildings. He leaves them with hope, at least for the moment.

He therefore takes umbrage when young upstart Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) shows up with plans to save the company a bundle. Her idea: no more flying about the country laying people off in person when you can just do it over the Internet. In a great scene, Bingham challenges Keener to show him her stuff. She practice fires him and he schools her, demonstrating the value of face-to-face in such touchy matters.

So, off they go on the road together. He’s the teacher and she’s the pupil. Or, actually, it’s not that simple and that’s why I think the movie is so darn good. He teaches her and she teaches him and she gets her chance to be a hero and so does he and around and around it goes.

Completing the triangle is Alex Goran (a superb Vera Farmiga), a woman Kendrick meets in an airport bar during his endless travels. They are kindred spirits, two sailors who occasionally dock in the same port and casually drift into each other’s arms – and hotel beds – while awaiting their next departures. They seem meant for each other. They certainly look very sexy together.

But again, nothing is simply quite as it seems. The romantic expectations inherent in the setup have a way of shifting from one shape to another until we stop trying to second guess and just go along for the ride. Who is the antagonist? Who is the hero? Who is the romantic interest? By the end, the answer to all three is all three – and no one.

I found myself deeply identifying with Up in the Air. I’m a 47-year-old family guy who has twice been laid off from a white collar job – though never by anyone as smooth as Bingham. I know the feeling well, that “why me?” feeling. But I also know firsthand that there is truth behind Bingham’s lines – even if he doesn’t quite believe them himself. It is true. Endings really are the new beginnings.

I’d happily relive my layoff scenes if I could redo them with George Clooney sitting across the desk. And that’s just what happened for many of the people in the movie. Director Jason Reitman (Juno) recruited recently laid off people and paid them to be laid off again by a movie star. I wonder if their ex-bosses are jealous. (Insert wicked laugh here.) I hope so.

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