If you read this blog regularly, you know I’ve been reviewing a string of movies that, though well-crafted, are so depressing you need to down a fistful of Xanax after watching. Imagine my relief, then, when I got to see Jason Reitman’s wonderful Up in the Air (opening Dec. 4), which is moving and thought-provoking but also entertaining in the purest sense of the word.
George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who flies all over the country to fire people when in-house managers don’t have the stones to do it themselves. Theoretically, this third-party method also protects company personnel from retaliation by pink-slipped employees. (Be sure and read my notes below from the Q & A; Reitman told amazing stories about using non-actors who’d really lost their jobs.)
It’s a tough line of work but Bingham loves it. He’s got his firing technique honed to a science, has no problem staying disconnected from people’s emotional reactions, and is more comfortable on the road than in his apartment, which looks less homey than his hotel rooms. He also has Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent flyer and bed partner whenever they’re in the same city. No strings, no responsibilities— just the way Bingham likes it.
His existence is threatened when his boss (Jason Bateman) hires a precocious upstart, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who suggests that firings can be done via teleconference to save travel costs. When Bingham protests, his boss tells him to take her on the road to see which method is better. Though high-strung and ambitious, Natalie helps Bingham realize that being grounded, literally and emotionally, might be a good thing.
Clooney’s performance here is his most vulnerable yet. There are times when Bingham is looking at Alex and Clooney just strips his face naked—eyes softened, completely defenseless—making you think, if you didn’t know better, that you’re watching him fall in love with Farmiga right there on screen. Sometimes his gaze is so intimate, I felt like a perv stealing his private moments.
Farmiga matches Clooney note for note and the heat between them is potent. She’s been consistently strong in little-seen films like Down to the Bone and Breaking and Entering; here’s hoping Air will take her career higher.
Kendrick is having a moment right now with this movie and New Moon, in which she plays Bella’s friend Jessica. She deserves the attention; her work here is infused with maturity and smarts. (Can’t comment on her Moon performance since I probably won’t see it.)
As for director, producer and co-writer Reitman (the movie is based on a novel by Walter Kirn), he’s proven beyond a doubt he’s no Tori Spelling. I’ll go further to say this movie is better than anything his father, Ivan, ever directed. Jason includes social commentary and emotional resonance with the humor; I can’t say the same for Meatballs, Twins or Kindergarten Cop. (OK, Ghostbusters was good but not Oscar material.) When Air is up for Best Picture—I think it has an excellent chance of winning —you’ll root for it, not roll your eyes like you do at elitist films that leave you wondering, “What the hell?”
After the Variety screening I attended, Reitman, Farmiga and Kendrick participated in a Q & A. Interesting tidbits revealed:
- The film’s St. Louis casting director, Joni Tackette, placed an ad looking for people who had recently lost their jobs and were willing to share their experiences on camera. Though actors (J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis among them) play some of the laid-off workers, twenty-two respondents ended up in the firing sequences, using their own words. Reitman said they talked about things he’d never think to write, in a way he’d never think to direct them. [This made for incredibly affecting scenes. When I was watching them, I kept thinking, “Who are all these actors? They’re so real.”]
- After a speaking engagement in St. Louis, Reitman was approached by a 50-year-old man named Kevin with a cassette tape. On it, Kevin explained he’d just lost his job and had written a song about what it means to try and find purpose in the world. Reitman said “what follows isn’t the most beautiful song but [it's] incredibly authentic.” He put it over the end credits, complete with Kevin’s intro about his situation.
- The movie was mostly shot in St. Louis and Detroit, which were among the cities hardest hit by the recession. Cast and crew filmed in office buildings that were cleared out and abandoned like they were supposed to be in the movie.
- Alex and Natalie aren’t in the book. Reitman wrote those roles specifically for Farmiga and Kendrick.
- Farmiga said she confided in Clooney that if she could cuddle up to any cinematic character, she’d choose Karl from Sling Blade. This made Clooney repeatedly do Karl imitations between takes.
- Clooney never goes to his trailer and never wears any makeup. Ever.
Nerd verdict: Up in the Air is first-class