I was having a hard time thinking of an opening for this review (probably why I don’t do this for a living… yet), so I thought I’d read what Roger Ebert had to say, as I respect his opinions a great deal. I was pondering making a comparison to The Messenger because both that film and this one feature characters who travel around and give people bad news. It seemed like a good intro. So I was both slightly annoyed and slightly pleased to read Ebert making the exact same comparison in his review of Up In The Air. On the one hand, I don’t want to see like I’m just parroting him, so now I’ve got to come up with another opener. On the other hand, it’s cool to know we’re operating somewhat on the same wavelength. But all that being said, I’m about 150 words into this post and I still haven’t started reviewing yet. So, take two…
Jason Reitman’s newest film Up In The Air doesn’t quite live up to the abundant hype it has generated, but, helped along by a trio of great performances, it comes pretty close.
George Clooney fits perfectly for his role as Ryan Bingham, a man hired by large corporations to fly around the country and fire people (excuse me, let people go). It’s a life lived perpetually on the road. He has no time for meaningful relationships, and no real plans for the future aside from the hope of one day collecting 10 million air miles, which he then has no particular intention of using. This probably sounds pretty dreary but thanks to some very quick and polished editing, the scenes of Bingham checking out, packing, going through security checks, boarding flights and renting cars are almost dizzying to behold.
Despite his dedication to efficiency, it’s clear from the outset Bingham has no sense of a greater purpose in life. He’s going nowhere in a hurry, happy with his job and his lifestyle. And as we see in a scene featuring a cameo by J.K. Simmons, he is most definitely good at what he does. There’s a lot more to it than simply booting former employees out the door, and the film does a good job of showing that. These scenes are some of Clooney’s best as he skilfully moves from blunt dismissals to words of cautious encouragement depending on the reactions of the people he’s been brought in to handle.
The scene with Simmons is one of many in Up In The Air featuring a performance by a great actor in a small role. Among others in bit parts are Jason Bateman, Sam Elliott and Melanie Lynskey, just to name a few. Using fine actors like these for peripheral roles seems a bit of a waste at first, but ultimately what it means is there are no weak links in the cast. There’s never a scene dragged down by a poor line reading and the script is solid, so the film moves along nicely.
Bingham floats along on his cloud, happy to be surrounded by people while always keeping them at a distance, that is until two female forces enter his life. The first is Alex, played by Vera Farmiga. Like Bingham, she’s a career-oriented person whose job involves criss-crossing the country. The two meet by chance and hit it off immediately, mainly because they see so much of themselves in each other. They vow to meet up again on the road when their schedules coincide.
This relationship is only just starting when Bingham gets a call from his boss Craig (played by the aforementioned Jason Bateman), who tells him to come home. Bingham’s being taken off the road, along with all the others who do his job. Enter female number two, Natalie, played with a combination of businesslike efficiency and just-out-of-grad-school naiveté by Anna Kendrick. She’s gotten in Craig’s ear with ideas about using video-conferencing to allow guys like Bingham to do all their work from the office. The company’s travel costs are slashed, and business is better than ever. Or so goes her theory.
Bingham argues with Craig that this is not the right way to do the job and that Natalie doesn’t understand the business. He wins the argument, but it ultimately backfires as he’s told Natalie will be accompanying him on the road so he can show her the ropes. With this basic premise set up, the movie takes flight from there (sorry, no more flight-related puns, I swear).
I said earlier that three great performances carry this movie, but I may have to scale that praise back a bit. As he so often does, Clooney is playing a version of himself. Charming, at ease, confident, but able to step up and be serious if something has to be said. It’s fine work and it suits the character, but there were definitely moments where I felt little reminders of characters like Danny Ocean and Michael Clayton that I’ve seen him do already.
In my eyes, the real stars were the ladies, starting with Farmiga, who comes as close to out-Clooneying Clooney as any woman I’ve seen him onscreen with. Her character Alex has the same charm and wit as Bingham, but where Bingham is direct, decisive and upfront with his thoughts, Alex has a coolly detached demeanour that makes her both attractive and mysterious. I’ve yet to see Farmiga put in a bad performance, and this film kept her record intact. It’s just nice to see her finally getting some attention in movies like The Departed and now this one.
Kendrick is also given a difficult part to play and mostly pulls it off. Her character is portrayed as a younger version of Farmiga’s, and the two have some great dialogue scenes together. I’d love to see this movie again without an audience because there’s a scene where she got a huge laugh in my theatre where I actually felt for her character. I laughed along with everyone else but I wonder if I would have done so watching alone.
Thus far I’ve listed almost entirely positives, and this fits with how I felt about the film. In terms of negatives, I can’t say much without getting detailed, but the third act includes sequences where Bingham plays an important role in a wedding. At this point the film seemed to be running out of momentum and it didn’t quite all hang together for me. I thought the conclusion left a lot of questions, but to be fair to Reitman, he has said many times this was intentional. He doesn’t want to wrap everything up neatly and tell people what to think, and I’m fine with that.
That saying about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is a good one, but I can’t apply it exactly here. I’m still not sure what I thought of the whole, but the parts were fantastic, so I have to give Reitman and his actors kudos for that.