Friday, December 18, 2009

"Up in the Air" - REVIEW

My dry run of movie watching finally came to an end (after almost 3.5 weeks) with Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, and I couldn't have been more pleased. In only his third feature film, Reitman has matured tremendously as a director, writer, and stylist, and has cemented his place as one of the potentially great directors of his generation.

There really couldn't have been a better time for Up in the Air to strike an emotional chord. As the United States trudges through dour economic times, along comes a film that highlights that economic struggle, albeit in some unconventional ways. The film opens with a quick sequence of a group of people (among them The Hangover's Zach Galifianikis) being fired by the smooth talking George Clooney, er, Ryan Bingham. As it turns out, Bingham isn't the boss of any of these people, but rather, "a guy who corporate pussies hire out to fire their own employees." As Ryan narrates his basic routine and lifestyle (spending all but some 40-odd days flying) it's hard to not be impressed by the opening. The writing, pacing, and editing are snappy without being showy or overwritten (as was sometimes the case with Reitman's Juno) and when the film takes its first moment to slow down just a hint, I was hit with the realization that Reitman had already sucked me in; I needed to see where this story was going.

So where exactly does the film "go"? A few surprising places as it turns out. For one, the film, despite its subject matter, is rather light in tone until the last 20 minutes, and even then it never descends into gut-wrenching drama. Instead of grinding to an off-putting halt during the more serious moments, Reitman keeps the pace in forward motion, albeit a bit slower. Even when Natalie (Anna Kendrick, playing a young upstart at Bingham's company) collapses in tears in Ryan's arms, the moment is played off as an awkward comedic moment rather than an attempt to pull heartstrings. Such a decision, which could have been off-putting or annoying, actually feels natural and suits the general flow of the plot. Also aiding move things along are, as mentioned above, Reitman's growth as a stylist. The animated titled cards in Juno were just that. They weren't real footage, or didn't incorporate real footage; they were merely quirky, standstill transition effects. Here, given the great number of location changes, Reitman makes his transition move better (literally) by using birds eye view footage of the cities visited with their names briefly appearing on screen. It's a small touch, but an effective one that helps maintain a visual sense of forward momentum.

But of course we can't forget the performances, and there's certainly nothing forgettable about them. Again, given the surprising amount of levity present, my gut-reaction was to label them as generally light-weight turns, but that's not the case. Clooney's Bingham just barely escapes being overshadowed by Clooney's star-persona, because of the depth that Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner give him. It may seem easy enough to label him as a cynical prick from the get-go, but the more time he spends with Natalie, the more me learn about why he does what he does, and even see him change in a moment of emotional crisis. And then there are the two women, both of whom Clooney has excellent, albeit different, chemistry with. One of the film's best scenes (set in the Dallas airport lounge) comes when Ryan Flirts with Alex (Vera Farmiga), and the two sarcastically compare various status cards for travel programs/airlines. In less able hands the scene could have been unintentionally ridiculous, but Reitman is able to steer his stars in the right direction, finding the perfect balance between sarcasm and faux-sincerity. On the other end, there's Kendrick, who unlike Farmiga, probably wants nothing romantic to do with Ryan. Her philosophical clashes with Ryan, though not of the deepest nature, give the story an engaging tension as the two travel and work together. Kendrick's quick, sharp line delivery falls in beautiful contrast to Clooney's more relaxed "cool" tone. In this trio, Reitman has found perhaps his most subtle groups of primary characters to date.

On the technical and artistic level Up in the Air is also Reitman's strongest film. Cinematography is in some scenes lovely in a weird, natural way with nice gliding camera work and zooms. The big surprise here, though, is the effectiveness of Rolfe Kent's engaging score, something I never expected to find memorable about the film. It's just one of many little surprises in one of the best cinematic offerings of the year.

Grade: B+/A-

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