TIFF09 REVIEW: Up in the Air [2009]

“I’m like my mother, I stereotype—it’s faster”

I’ll get it out right now: I have a soft spot for director Jason Reitman. I felt his debut Thank You for Smoking lived up to expectations and his sophomore effort Juno was my first ever screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, allowing me to experience something fresh and unique before becoming a breakout phenomenon. So, on the basis of nostalgia, as well as talent, my friend and I had to see if he could finish out the hat trick with Up in the Air at this year’s festival. And boy did he—not only crafting a film that hits on all cylinders, but one that trumps his previous two, proving that the young Reitman has staying power and the eye to not only find good material, but also to bring it to life for the world to see.

Based on the novel by Walter Kirn, George Clooney stars as corporate downsizing expert Ryan Bingham, who is hired to help ease the transition of long-term employees to the unemployment line across the country. Taking his job very seriously and loving the 290 days away from home—the only problem with that is the 70 days in his empty apartment—his world gets turned upside-down when a young upstart in the company threatens to ground them, firing people via the internet. Not standing for a change in his life, nor the chance for his life goal of total airline miles to end, (“Let’s just say I have a number and I haven’t hit it yet”), he goes on a mission to prove how personal his job is and how key a face to face meeting can be to talk down an emotionally unstable person and really do the victim a service in an otherwise horrible moment in his life. Along the way, he and the recent college grad, of which the boss loves due to her budget slashing game-changing idea, Natalie, played by Anna Kendrick, both find out what has been lacking in their lives and how to become better people, opening up to love, heartbreak, and the need to grow up.

Clooney’s Bingham is the loner businessman whose only relationships exist from random meetings with attractive females at the multiple airports he frequents. His wallet of plastic has become his lifeblood—credit cards from airlines that accumulate his mileage, hotel status perk cards that let him cut the disgruntled travelers and go straight to the front, and numerous room keys that never seem to be thrown out, causing him to always use more than one before finally opening his hotel suite’s door. Detached from his family for years as the brother that exists but cannot be counted on for anything, he contemplates whether he should, or really wants to, attend his sister’s wedding—the little girl of the family and someone he should have been involved with after the passing of their father. A series of style cramping incidents for him begins with a phone call from his other sister and the request to take a cardboard cutout of the happy couple, (Melanie Lynskey and Danny McBride, in a role that might actually show some nuance for a guy that usually goes where the joke is), and photograph it in front of famous places he travels to for work “like that French gnome movie,”—I love the Amélie reference. Then comes the threat of being taken out of the air, his home for decades, in order to impersonally let go of more people more efficiently; the challenge of taking Natalie on his next schedule of jobs to prove to her why the new system won’t work; and the addition of a love interest in Vera Farmiga’s Alex, a woman who describes herself to him with, “just think of me as you with a vagina”—one of many great lines.

There is a lot of subtlety and intricate weaving of plot lines throughout the story, details and sequences that need to be seen fresh to get the full benefit of the film. What you might initially think is a witty comedy about a jerk of a guy who not only thinks he’s better than everyone else, but actually is, that either finds the error of his ways or gets dropped down a peg or two, eventually becomes a tale chock full of heart and emotion. The real success story of the film is a revelatory performance from Clooney who really knocks this one out of the park. He always showed the charisma and chops to play confident and successful, but here is allowed to also branch out and express the pent-up frustration that comes with isolated loneliness, the passion one can have for a job that seems horrible, yet, when treated carefully, is a job to take seriously, and the compassion for humanity on the whole, softening enough to realize that there are people around him that need help besides his laid off strangers, help that only he can provide. The evolution he undertakes is really pretty amazing and I credit Kirn, Reitman, and Clooney for pulling it off with grace and laughter.

Every single actor is unforgettable—even the bit parts like Zach Galifianakis and especially J.K. Simmons as two corporate employees whose jobs have been eliminated. Jason Bateman is hilarious as Clooney’s smug boss, fully embodying the take no crap nonchalance he made famous in “Arrested Development”; Farmiga is gorgeous and competent to be able to go toe-to-toe with Clooney in the detachment and power-hungry attitude of flying in style for half a year or more; and, if George’s reinvention of character is revelatory, then Kendrick’s naïve Natalie is masterful. This girl was top in her class, able to get a job in her field wherever her heart desired, yet settled for this firm specializing in firing people so as to not dirty the workers’ real superior’s hands. Young and confused about life in the big world of adulthood—set on a plan for marriage and children to occur as though set times on a clock—her eyes are opened to the intimacy and fragility with which a person’s mental state can be affected by mere words. When you put them all together, Up in the Air resonates on so many levels; deserving of any praise and accolades to be bestowed upon it. Hilariously funny every second of the way, it is still unafraid to dig into the dark moments of life and treat them with respect and relevancy, going places you wouldn’t think it would have the guts to go. You really can’t say too much about the film, a top ten of the year entry for sure, with Reitman proving to be a force to reckon with and Clooney just getting better with age.

Up in the Air 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

photography:
Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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  1. [...] Up in the Air, review: George Clooney may have outdone himself with this film. Never have I said, “Wow, Clooney really [...]



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