Sunday, January 31, 2010

Up in the Air

UP IN THE AIR (Jason Reitman, 2009)

In UP IN THE AIR George Clooney's Ryan Bingham is one of the guys companies call in when they're going to fire many employees but don't want to handle the delicate process internally. Ryan's job is to transition people from their stable existences to uncertain futures, which he promises them is an opportunity to springboard to better times. Is that true? Does he mean it? It doesn't matter. His purpose is to break the news, not to break their falls after he's left town.

Although his employer is based out of Omaha, Ryan's home is flying the friendly skies and sleeping in whatever nice hotel his expense report provides for. The single, perpetually traveling Ryan has virtually no commitments, and that's how he likes it.

When ambitious up-and-comer Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) convinces Ryan's boss that they could be more efficient and save enormous amounts of money by conducting firings remotely over webcam chats, Ryan finds his way of life threatened. He is charged with showing Natalie how things work in the field but with the understanding that this is the last time he'll be hitting the road.

With THANK YOU FOR SMOKING and JUNO, writer-director Jason Reitman demonstrated an ability to craft solid films anchored by compelling performances. Reitman isn't a director who relies on flashy technique. Rather, he's a skilled storyteller with a knack for entertaining. He's done it again with UP IN THE AIR, his best film to date.

The film has been lauded for being very of the moment in its treatment of massive corporate layoffs, but where it truly shines--and what will give it more staying power through the years--is how it details the importance of a personal touch. Dismissal by internet teleconference or a relationship break-up via text message may be more efficient and easier on those severing ties, but such methods deny the humanity of those being cut off.

Clooney's character may be delivering harsh news and telling a beautiful lie about what awaits on the other side of losing a job, but simply being in the same room and treating each person as an individual, even when following a template, gives them dignity.

UP IN THE AIR features a heartbreaking scene in which Natalie tests the technology to can a man sitting in the next room. The difference in empathy provided in a serious face-to-face encounter versus this chilly axing is palpable. While this may appear to be a fine line of etiquette that society is still defining, it's one that merits genuine consideration.

In retrospect it's somewhat astonishing how appealing Clooney is as an unlikable character in UP IN THE AIR. Ryan Bingham values a life unattached to any people or place and selfishly guards what he withdraws from others so effortlessly. Before this lone wolf awakens to the reality of the life he has built and becomes more sympathetic, Clooney turns on the old Hollywood charm that makes the character so effective and him one of the most persuasive actors currently working.

Although Kendrick's character looks to implement the cold technological solution, she serves as the film's conscience. Full of unbridled energy and youthful naїveté, Kendrick's performance unlocks the central question of how to live. As Clooney's lover and female reflection, Vera Farmiga brings a sense of accepted resignation to the choices she's made. Despite the sad heart beating underneath UP IN THE AIR, it's a funny and ultimately warm film.

Grade: B+


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  2. Hi, Loved your review. Is technology defining the etiquette of the society this way? I had written a similar commentary about it in my blog.
    Would love to hear your thoughts