Up in the Air Review

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by Casimir Harlow Jun 21, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Up in the Air Review
    Considering the inauspicious start to his career, as no-name TV actor back in the mid-eighties, it is amazing to see how far George Clooney has come. Now regarded as one of the best actors of his generation, up there with Denzel Washington, he is finally getting the recognition he deserves, finally getting the plaudits and the nominations he has so clearly earned. It all started quite late for him, in the mid-nineties, working on a then-breakthrough medical drama called E.R. Rather than doing a 'David Caruso' (said rising NYPD Blue star left TV in his prime to, unsuccessfully, attempt to crack Hollywood), Clooney chose instead not to ditch his TV paycheque entirely and instead simultaneously took a scattergun approach at the Big Screen.
    Whilst still popping in County General for E.R. he also starred in no less than 6 mainstream movies in less than a 3 year period. Moreover, they were all very different genres. It was a clever tactic, securing him a fanbase in 5 of the intended target categories: Out of Sight (romantic thriller), One Fine Day (romance), Three Kings (satirical war movie), From Dusk Til Dawn (crime thriller/vampire flick aka Tarantino/Rodriguez movie) and The Peacemaker (action thriller). Only Batman & Robin came up short, which was no real loss as a) Clooney probably never really fitted into the Superhero genre and b) After 3 different actors took the role in 3 successive movies the finger of blame was clearly pointing at the scriptwriters more than the lead. And besides, by then everybody else loved the guy.
    Needless to say, 1999 saw the end of his TV career (but for a cameo during last year's star-studded E.R. final run) and saw him cement his standing as one of the best actors out there, pulling in consistently good performance in still-myriad different movies. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Syriana, then - a year later - was nominated for Best Actor for his amazing performance in the modern classic conspiracy thriller Michael Clayton (only missing out because he happened to be going up against the unstoppable powerhouse that is Daniel Day-Lewis). And just this year he was nominated again for this, Up in the Air, the latest film from the upcoming Director of Juno, Jason Reitman (son of Ghostbusters' Ivan Reitman).
    Ryan Bingham is an expert in Career Transition Counselling, working for a very popular downsizing company. He basically jets around the US, dropping in on flagging corporations and firing their 'unnecessary' personnel. A motivational speaker in his spare time, his bread and butter is still his main job, a thankless job, which he does extremely well, making an art out of telling people that 'this is not the end, it is just the beginning of the rest of your life'. Business is profiting from the current recession, leaving him on the road (or, more accurately, up in the air) for some 270 out of 365 days of the year. Unfortunately, although not wholly unexpectedly in the current climate, his own company is looking at cutting costs themselves, and so they bring in Natalie, a young overachiever, who proposes that they eliminate their ludicrous travel expenditure by grounding all of their staff and using video conferencing to do the firing from their head offices. Threatened by the change - which could turn his whole life upside down - Ryan is forced to take Natalie with him to show her the ropes. Determined to prove his worth, the journey he undergoes slowly starts to teach him that everything he has been preaching over the years - and practising himself - may just be a big lie that he's been fooling himself with.
    Up in the Air is a well-constructed, eminently insightful and totally character-driven drama. It explores themes of redundancy within several aspects of modern society in relation to work, relationships and our very purpose in life. In the current age of recession, both in the US and here in the UK (even if the film defines 'global' as meaning just within the US!) the film is a perfectly-timed, extremely topical release. But its poignant insights stretch beyond just job redundancy, as it also looks - quite accurately - at the state of modern relationships. It reflects on the career-driven women (and also men) of the last generation, and the pressure on modern women to balance the career that is now expected of them, with the relationship and children that they often really want at the end of the day. It paints the picture of a well-dressed drifter, a travelling salesman, who has been selling a fake dream for so long that he actually believes his own pitch - and has tailored his life to reflect it. He has no ties, no baggage and no responsibilities. But he also has nobody to come home to. Hell, he doesn't even have a real home, just a glorified hotel room which serves as his stop-over point whilst waiting to get back on the road (in the air).
    Clooney is on tremendous form. Sure he still channels that Cary-Grant-for-the-modern-generation charm that comes so effortlessly to the man, but his portrayal is much more nuanced than just Danny Ocean - his assuredly arrogant, flash, suit-wearing, precision-packing, smooth-talking persona is just a shell here, with no real substance beneath. And you can see the realisation of this in his every gesture, in the slightly worried expression on his face as he waits for the fake life he has built up for himself to come crumbling down. Clooney shows true hubris in the role, genuinely portraying a sympathetic character whose sudden self-awareness comes all too late - the very realisation of that in itself coming as almost a death sentence. It's another subtle but powerful role for the man, after his tour-de-force performance in Michael Clayton.
    The Departed's Vera Farmiga takes on quite a brave role as Clooney's character's would-be female equivalent. She is also a bit of a late bloomer herself, barely appearing on the radar at all over the last 13 years, and yet she holds her own well opposite Clooney. Oddly, the only disappointment with her was the fact that the single tremendous, almost iconic, ass-shot they show of her walking into the bedroom involved a body double. Booo. Jason Bateman gives us another one of those cocky, wise-cracking characterisations that he loves so much (The Kingdom, State of Play, Hancock), only without the sleazy edge he had in Juno, playing the manager in the downsizing company. But the real surprise was Twilight's Anna Kendrick, who shows that she can actually act despite being tainted by being in the impotent diet vampire franchise. She's great as Clooney's adversary-turned-protégé, even if the role often only calls upon her to act like a spoilt, immature 20-something-going-on-12.
    Reitman has given us a truly memorable follow-up (and perhaps companion-piece) to Juno, and it is certainly as bold in its portrayal of mid-life-crisis women as much as Juno was in its portrayal of mid-life-crisis men, casting an unreservedly disparaging look at both the career-minded older generation, and those 'settled' women who still want to have their cake and eat it.
    So the cast is great, the Director works wonders, and the script is excellent - witty as it sardonically observes the hilarity of some modern situations, and biting as it (often moralistically) takes jabs at the solitude that we have created for ourselves by our own desperate desire for independence. But the story itself is perhaps the only aspect that falls down. It does not really amount to much, and what little there is to string everything together does come across as marginally predictable - but still the movie is clearly more about the characters and their journey, not just the strength of the narrative, and so it is ultimately a great success. Perhaps not destined to be a classic, Up in the Air is nonetheless a topical reflection on a nation struggling through a dire financial crisis, and burdened by the weight of the responsibilities levied on it by a generation peppered with selfish individuals who may have succeeded in their careers, but have sacrificed a great deal to get there. Thought-provoking, it is an insightful character study driven by excellent performances, and is simply too good to be missed. Recommended.
    “If you think about it, your favourite memories, the most important moments in your life... were you alone? Life's better with company.”

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