In returning to my roots and blogging about film, I’ve decided to start a “For Your Consideration” series about the best films (based on the consensus of critics, audiences, and clever marketers) of 2009, in advance of the Oscars. I really slacked on seeing films in the theater in ’09, so I’m making do with the help of the Internet. Forget winter, it is (bootleg) screener season! Without further ado…
Up in the Air
Up in the Air is the first true film of the 2009 recession, a happy accident thanks to writer-director Jason Reitman‘s early successes. Rather than making this film in 2002 as originally intended, the director’s work on Thank You For Smoking (2005) and Juno (2007) pushed this film to the backburner, causing the recession to dominate the tone of the film in a way that the economy wouldn’t have during better times. With double digit unemployment, only the ever-charming George Clooney could make corporate downsizer / motivational speaker Ryan Bingham a sympathetic character.
Ryan is a creature of habit, constantly flying around the country and doing the work that managers and executives are too afraid to do. The precision of his routine is captured by Reitman’s smooth cuts and repetitive sequences as Ryan packs, moves through security, and jets to the next destination. Even his predictably Spartan apartment is basically a hotel room. His obsession with brand loyalty and the elite perks of corporate dedication is an easy target for satire, as Ryan and fellow frequent-flyer Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) trade cards in a scene that recalls the business card exchange in American Psycho. Alex is a perfect foil, as she tells Ryan to think of her as himself “with a vagina.” Farmiga is as cool and cocky as Clooney, and their no-strings-attached relationship gives new meaning to the term lay-over.
Ryan’s world is thrown into chaos as his firm decides to go digital, bringing in Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, of the Twilight series) to make their business “glocal,” corporate-speak combining global and local. They take the show on the road, as Ryan teaches Natalie how to lay-off someone face-to-face before the new system goes live. The majority of the film follows a familiar pattern, as old and young learn from each other; Ryan’s romantic notions of his job versus the cold calculations of this twentysomething with a Myspace page. When Natalie’s boyfriend breaks up with her via text, the irony isn’t lost on Ryan. But Natalie also lands her punches, eviscerating his “cocoon of self-banishment” and total dedication to not connecting to possessions, people, or places.
Except for notable sequences with Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons (among others crucial to the plot), the appearances of the newly-unemployed are of real people who had been laid off. The veracity is heart-breaking, with reactions that run the emotional gamut. When Natalie tests her system (with the target in the adjacent room), the real reaction is hers, not the grown man crying next door. Will she be able to cut it in this world, or is Ryan’s cocoon a necessary evil?
As Ryan heads home to attend his sister’s wedding, he brings along Alex, as the life lessons and questions about the future start to pile up. The wedding sequence moves from objective to subjective and feels more like a home video than a corporate instructional one, a tonal shift reflected in Ryan’s character. The last act of the film finds Ryan finally making decisions, with a turning point at a seminar called GoalQuest (the name is too cute by half). Unfortunately, the twists are a little too by-the-numbers for me, which lessens the emotional punch as the film ends.
George Clooney is the only actor of our time who comes close to mirroring the range and talent of Cary Grant: confident and cool, but multi-dimensional. His casting, along with Vera Farmiga as Alex and Jason Bateman as middle-manager Craig Gregory (is he getting type-cast, or what?), works well, although I couldn’t help but see someone like Kristen Bell in the Natalie role. Reitman continues to develop his directorial style, although the script’s satire isn’t as sharp as that of Thank You For Smoking. Still, this is a very entertaining film with cleverly crafted characters and, with the context of the recession, real resonance.
Four out of five frequent flyer miles.