“Up in the Air,” a Jason Reitman-directed (and written, with assistance from Sheldon Turner) film stands a great chance of being named this year’s Best Film of the Year. It’s definitely a front-runner and will (no doubt) duke it out with the likes of “Precious,” “The Hurt Locker,” and “Up in the Air.”
I had the feeling, as I watched the movie, that without George Clooney in the pivotal role of the commitment-phobic Ryan Bingham, who travels the United States terminating people from their jobs and accumulating frequent flyer miles (his goal is 10 million miles), this movie would not be nearly as strong. Clooney’s reputation as a ladies’ man helps us to accept him in the role and aids the film immensely. I also had the feeling that Clooney’s expert light comedy touch might go unrewarded, again, just as Woody Allen’s comic film masterpieces did for so many years, (until “Annie Hall.”) [Personally, I would have given Clooney the Oscar for his performance in 2007’s “Michael Clayton,” portraying the title character.]
While “Precious” has Oprah in its corner, and “Invictus” has Clint Eastwood in its, Jason Reitman’s film, based on the novel by Walter Kirn, has both Clooney (a formidable asset), and the fact that unemployment in this country has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression. Lay-offs are as common as crab grass, but far more devastating. With the horrible economic conditions abroad in the land and unemployment rates of 10% becoming routine, the film capitalizes on the nation’s preoccupation with losing one’s job.
Everyone knows someone who has either been fired or fears he soon will be fired. The ability to empathize with the illiterate black teen-ager of “Precious” may not be as universal an empathetic emotion, so let’s give the edge to “Up in the Air” in that department, Oprah effect or no Oprah effect. Plus, this is a fun and lightweight film, while no one would ever characterize “Precious” as that, nor “Avatar,” nor “The Hurt Locker.” I’ve already declared “Invictus” to be only mediocre entertainment, despite the best efforts of its fine stars, and the rest of the race (“The Hurt Locker?” “Up?”) is wide open at this point in time.
There are numerous vignettes of people being fired, since, in the film (if not the book) the company that is responsible for doing the dirty work of actually terminating employees is considering moving away from the use of real people to do the dirty work and is moving towards the use of long-distance technology (computers). Some of those getting the bad news are actors we recognize (J.K. Simmons, the father in “Juno,” as Bob and comedian/actor Zach Galifiakanas as Steve). Some are not
So, how does the movie measure up to the book?
In the book, Clooney’s character is obsessed with using big words and expanding his vocabulary. In the book, there are more women (other than Vera Farmigia, the female lead, as Alex Goran), more sex, and implications of drug abuse. In the book, Vera Farmigia’s character is desperate for Clooney’s character (Ryan Bingham) to return the affection she feels for him, but he remains indifferent and emotionally aloof. In the book, Ryan Bingham, the traveling terminator, talks about the physical toll of his constant travel, and there is no subplot involving using technology to replace face-to-face termination(s). But who’s keeping track of such minor details?
The film based on the book is great fun! It is a lightweight soufflé that, ultimately, both entertains and enriches, with a message that relationships do matter and, without them, you may end up “up in the air” with choices drifting by you and floating all around, as an original song by Kevin Renick, (a fan who sent the song to Director Jason Reitman), puts it. I was taken with the use of the song by an unknown over the closing credits, because the daughter’s Nashville mentor, Rick Clark, was the person responsible for selecting the songs used in the film and this one seemed very apropos. The music in the film opens with “This Land Is Your Land”, sung by Sharon Jones, a soulful rendition, as a plane flies above a variety of midwestern cities.
Much of the film was shot in St. Louis, although other Midwestern cities (Omaha, Des Moines, Dubuque) are also mentioned onscreen, as well as locations such as Miami and San Francisco.
Clooney’s terminator du jour takes up with Vera Farmigia’s character of Alex because they have much in common in terms of constant travel. Only a fellow frequent flier would find the prospect of becoming only the 7th member to reach the 10 million mile club “sexy,” Lines like “To know me is to fly with me” resonate as the film progresses, and Ryan’s side-job as a motivational speaker who encourages others to “unload their backpacks” of responsibility serves as a nice counterpoint to allow Clooney’s character to express certain key philosophies in his life. Example: “We weigh ourselves down until you can’t even move. And moving is living.”
As a woman of a certain age, I laughed out loud at Clooney’s young sidekick Natalie Keener, well played by Anna Kendrick. Anna is young and inexperienced. She has never actually fired anyone, so she is sent out on the road with Clooney by boss Jason Bateman (Craig Gregory) to learn what the process is really like, up close and personal. When she says, to Vera Farmigia’s character, “I really appreciate everything that your generation did for me,” and tells her that she hopes she looks as good as Vera does “in 15 years,” you have to smile. (Either that or cry.)
There is a telling scene in the film with dialogue that pretty well snaps into focus the idea that it is immature to shirk responsibilities and work so hard to remain unattached, footloose and fancy-free. The women in the film drive it home the most directly, declaring that they are “grown-ups” who consider Clooney’s character’s approach to life immature. As he declares to rooms of rapt seminar listeners, “The slower we move, the faster we die. We’re not swans, we’re sharks.” As they say, “You are an escape. A break from our normal lives. A parenthesis.”
Clooney tells his soon-to-be brother-in-law (who is experiencing a bad case of double approach-avoidance response, otherwise known as cold feet, on the day of his wedding to Clooney’s sister (played by Amy Morton, better-known from her continuing appearances as the neighbor on television’s “Two and One-Half Men”): “Life’s better with company. Everybody needs a co-pilot.” The prospective brother-in-law, played by Danny McBride as Jim Miller, has shut himself away reading “The Velveteen Rabbit” and is undergoing a moment of existential angst. He asks Clooney (who is sent in to convince him to go through with the wedding), “What is the point?” Clooney’s answer? “There is no point.”
Another great exchange has Clooney saying to his sister Julie Bingham, (Melanie Lynskey) “I tell people how to avoid commitment.” She responds, “What kind of f*****-up message is that?”
By film’s end, you’ll have your answer, and so will Clooney’s character of Ryan Bingham.