December 24, 2009

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Up In the Air (R)
George Clooney is a man blissfully living in a kind of life stasis and terrified by the thought he might have to put down roots in Up in the Air, a quietly funny, sweetly sad movie by Jason Reitman.

Reitman directed Juno and Thank You for Smoking and if you liked those movies, particularly the latter, you’ll like this one. Also, you’ll like this movie if you liked In Good Company — a movie from 2004 that, similar to this one, shows how, like it or not, our jobs and the culture of our industry are very much who we are.

Because as boring, disappointing or not-what-we-wanted as our jobs may be, they at a certain point start to fuse with us. Ryan Bingham (Clooney) shows up at the point where person must be separated from job. He is hired to go around the country and fire people — though, as he tells a newbie, you never say the word “fired” — and help them into the phase of new opportunities, which is the corporate way for easing you out of the building before you cause any real devastation.

As emotionally fraught as this part of Ryan’s job can be, the rest of it is perfectly suited to the rolling stone he wants to be. His job means that in a year he might be home — or rather “home” in an empty one-room apartment devoid of any personalizing touches — for 40 days. The other 325 days, he’ll be in planes, hotels, airports and restaurants. He has elite flier status, getting waved to the head of the line when he checks in for first class. He also has elite status at the car rental shop (easy returns and checkouts) and the hotel (faster check-in, a robe). On the road with the roller suitcase in which his entire life fits is his real home. No roots, no attachments, nothing to weigh him down — it’s a philosophy that he occasionally shares with others at motivational speeches given in the conference rooms of other such blandly comfortable hotels. His human contact ranges from friendly strangers to the very friendly strangers that are his occasional companions for an evening — fellow business traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga) and her similar love of airline miles and preferred customer perks appears to be tailor made for his nothing-serious approach to life.

This world is in jeopardy, though, from the advent of teleconferencing and a plan by Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a chipper just-out-of-college executive who has recently joined the firm. She thinks there’s money to be saved and efficiency to be gained by having the terminators (though they can’t be called that, for legal reasons, Ryan is told) do their jobs via computer screen. Ryan would never have to leave the home base of Omaha! (Poor Omaha, the city’s name is almost always a punchline in this movie.)
When Ryan complains that this plan just isn’t a good one, he’s told by his boss Craig (Jason Bateman) to give Natalie the education Ryan thinks she lacks and take her on the road.

Up in the Air is that rare movie that looks at work — how people feel when their work is taken away and the little rituals that make work something more than just the eight hours (or whatever) you spend trying to make enough to pay the rent. Scenes of people reacting to the news that their “position here is no longer available” are sad and funny and touching and cynical. Similar to Ryan’s approach to life. He isn’t some slickster. He’s earnest and, when it surprises you (and maybe him) most, vulnerable. But he also recognizes that some of the things he likes best about his life are a bit shallow (his most treasured goal has to do with hitting a certain number of miles flown).

This smartly written story that uses a rather small plot for its big emotions is bolstered by truly impressive performances. Kendrick is perfect as Tracy Flick grown up and still striving. Farmiga plays a woman who becomes more complex (and sort of shocking) the more we know about her. Bateman, who was built to play these corporate types, is a perfect garnish. And Clooney is genially magnificent. He fits the role like Ryan’s well-tailored suits fit him. He truly is getting better as he gets older (and not just handsomer, though he does use his handsomeness perfectly here, including as the occasional foil for a joke).

Up in the Air is the serious drama (though chock full of dry humor) for everybody who loves The Office. A

Rated R for language and some sexual content. Directed by Jason Reitman and written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner (from a novel by Walter Kirn), Up in the Air is an hour and 49 minutes long and distributed by Paramount Pictures. It is currently in limited release and will open wide on Friday, Dec. 25.