I’ve just seen the most eloquent, affecting and altogether best film of 2009…so far. Yes, better than my beloved The Hurt Locker. If it doesn’t win the Best Picture Oscar next February…well, okay…I’ll live. Jason Reitman will live, George Clooney will live, Paramount publicity will live, Brad Grey will live, your family and friends will live, and the sun will come up the next day.
(l. to r.) Vera Farmiga, George Clooney, Anna Kendrick in Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air.
But Up In The Air really has it all — recognizable human-scale truth, clarity, smart comfort, the right degree of restraint (i.e., knowing how not to push it), and — this got me more than anything else — a penetrating, almost unnerving sense of quiet.
This is one of the calmest and most unforced this-is-who-we-are, what-we-need and what-we’re-all-afraid-of-in-the-workplace movies that I’ve ever seen. From an American, I should say. (The Europeans have almost made job-anxiety films into a genre — i.e., Laurent Cantet‘s Time Out, etc.) But I would guess that Up In The Air will play very, very well in Paris. It’s a film that walks and talks it and knows it every step of the way. Work, adulthood, asking the questions that matter, compassion, family, stick-your-neck-out, etc. The whole package. With an almost profound lack of Hollywood bullshit and jerk-offery. And a kind of Brokeback Mountain-y theme at the finale — i.e., “move it or lose it.”
Up In The Air doesn’t tell you what to feel — it lets you feel what it is. All the best movies do that. They don’t sell or pitch — they just lay it down on the Oriental carpet and say to the viewer, “We’ve got a good thing here, and if you agree, fine. And if you don’t, go with God.”
You know what? The hell with that attitude. If you really watch and let this movie in and then say, as a friend of a good friend said after watching it in Telluride a few days ago, “I don’t know…it’s nice but it’s more like an okay ground-rule double than a homer,” then due respect but you’re the kind of person who likes candied popcorn and Strawberry Twizzlers and feel-good pills. No offense.
Variety‘s Todd McCarthy called it “a slickly engaging piece of lightweight existentialism.” That’s an unfair and inappropriate characterization. There’s a difference between lightweight and having the goods and taking it easy and laying it on gradually.
The thing that puts Up In The Air over is that it’s about right effin’ now, which is to say the uncertain and fearful Great Recession current of 2009. Reitman has been working on it for six years, and if it had come out last September — just as the bad news about what those greedy selfish banking bastards had done was being announced and everyone started to mutter “uh-oh” to themselves — it wouldn’t be reflecting the cultural what-have-you as much as it is now. And yet it never alludes to anything that specific. It doesn’t have to.
We all know about the story by now. Ryan Bingham (Clooney) is a kind of lightweight Zen smoothie who specializes in gently firing people when their bosses are too chicken to do it themselves. He doesn’t just like travelling around in business class seats and staying in nice hotels — he relishes the sense of belonging and security that he gets from being constantly in motion and never digging into a life of his own. And it’s easy to spot the arc — i.e., will Ryan find some way to let go of skimming along and maybe go for a little soul infusion?
The basic story propellant comes from two women who represent a certain kind of change/growth/threat element — Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow traveller who’s an exact replica of Bingham save for her sexuality, and with whom he strikes up a nice groove-on relationship in the film’s beginning, and Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a hamster-sized junor exec type who ‘s sold Ryan’s boss (Jason Bateman) on whacking people through a video conferencing system rather than face-to-face.
But I don’t want to get into the story more than that. What happens, happens for the right reasons. The main thing is that none of the developments feel the least bit ungenuine. And I will square off with anyone who says the ending isn’t sufficiently “happy.” Anyone who doesn’t realize that Clooney is quite another man and open to the next good thing at the finale simply hasn’t been paying attention.
There are many witnesses in this film a la Reds — real-life people who’ve been laid off and are facing the abyss in more ways than one — and I’ve already read complaints that Reitman overplays this card. I respectfully disagree. The clips appear symmetrically (i.e., at the beginning and end), and have an added weight at the finale. “Repetition” doesn’t necessarily mean “repetitiously.”
I’m really glad I caught Up In The Air at the beginning of the second wave — i.e., immediately post-Telluride. By the time it comes out on 11.13.09 it’ll be something else, and by that I mean the movie that snarkers will be looking to shoot down just to do that. Snarkers are so reprehensible. They pummel and flatten things down and rob them of their fresh-soil beauty.