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Up in the Air (2009)

by on 2013/08/28

Up in the Air (2009)

“It’s only a problem if you have a solution.”

* * * * *

Call it what you will: being downsized, laid off, or let go. It’s happened to me twice so far and it may well happen again. Compensation notwithstanding, my reactions were distinct. On one occasion I went rudderless, on another I nearly cheered.

So, as much as I expected Up in the Air would prove unnerving, that I’d share a sense of empathy with its victims, instead I found solidarity with the alleged isolated shark, their firer. Perhaps this association comes with being slightly out of time, self-aware, and having no recent regrets. Let’s say “lone wolf”.

That firer, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is valued in his job dismissing employees, and moonlights as a motivational speaker. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of crossover between these roles. His aspirational philosophy is based on reducing dependencies, and his manner in a dismissal is nearly inspiring.

His life ticks along, and his outlook remains valid, in part because it’s never been challenged. He finds convenient distraction in like-minded others, “romantic” interest Alex (Vera Farmiga) for example.

Then, in a “hunter hunted” turnabout, his own boss Craig (Jason Bateman) is smitten with an especially ruthless development concocted by psych graduate Natalie (Anna Kendrick). She plans to tech up their usual methods, thus reducing overhead by 85%, disaster to a company man like Bingham.

A handful of solid character actors round out other smaller-yet-memorable roles, including Zach Galifianakis, Melanie Lynskey, Danny McBride, as well as Sam Elliott and J.K. Simmons, who also appeared in director Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking. Zach’s scene is uniquely funny, and Simmons’ is eerily awesome, a contender for best in the film overall, and a rival to Elliott’s in Smoking.

An especially poignant touch is the use of legitimate firees, who reenact their experiences without needing “acting” to get through to us. At the risk of sounding churlish, they make When Harry Met Sally seem false. (It employs a similar conceit, though its “real people” are actually actors.)

In every other regard, the production is as solid as Smoking was, with sonic and visual touches to suggest an advanced grasp of film-making craft. The story, writing, and acting . . . stock and photography, varied footage, editing, wipes, and titles . . . Rolfe Kent’s score, the diegetic songs . . . there was never a moment when artifice went too far or was poorly handled.

While the movie, through its characters and expression, has a lot to say on many topics, in the end, it succeeded best for achieving one thing: it made me feel so much for someone who longs to feel so little. Its aspiring ascetic-of-sorts appealed to this disappointed idealist. Thank You for Smoking was a truly great film. Up in the Air is even greater.

* * * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

110 mins

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