Flying high, then coming down to earth ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Friday, March 12, 2010

Flying high, then coming down to earth

Up in the Air
My rating:

It took almost half a year, but it's finally here. Nominated for six Academy Awards - Best Picture, Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, and two for Supporting Actress - Up in the Air is one of the most acclaimed movies of the year, and it's been earning those accolades since even before its Oscar noms. Actually, make that last year. As usual, the smartest and most interesting films tend to pass us by, so I guess we should be grateful to United International Pictures for even bringing it in at all. Sadly, I doubt it'll make much money here in Malaysia, which is why this is one of the few movies I invited a friend to. One of a film critic's duties is to proselytize, and I was almost certain that this would be a worthy film to champion.

Yes. It is.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) lives a rootless life, and loves it. He works as a "career transition counselor", which means he fires people on behalf of bosses too cowardly to do it themselves. Business is good, and he spends almost his entire time traveling around the country, living in airports and planes and hotels, and that suits him just fine. But three events will make him re-evaluate his life: the first is his meeting with Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent traveler with whom he has a casual affair that might turn into something more. The second is Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a bright young hire at his company whose idea of layoffs-via-teleconferencing threatens to ground him, and who ends up following him on his trips to learn the ropes. The third is his sister's upcoming wedding, which will force him to reconnect with both his estranged sisters Kara (Amy Morton) and Julie (Melanie Lynskey).

The first thing that surprised me about this film is how funny it is. Its premise doesn't seem to lend itself to comedy, and its trailers didn't exactly bespeak a laugh-a-minute experience either. So kudos to the studio's marketing team for cutting trailers that, for once, didn't give the whole movie away; in fact, what seemed like a poignant scene in one trailer is in fact a pretty funny one in the film. (No, this isn't false advertising either, since there's plenty of emotional moments in it as well.) The humour is entirely natural, and is a textbook example of how comedy that comes from characters - people with different personalities trying to adjust to each other - is so much more rewarding than contrived wacky hijinks. That stuff is fake; this is real. When Natalie tells Alex that "you're exactly how I want to look 15 years from now", that's just the kind of innocently thoughtless remark a naive-but-nice girl like Natalie would make.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. There's a lot going on in this film, and its humour is just one of them. There's the satire of American corporate culture, and how cutthroat and dehumanizing it is; writer-director Jason Reitman cast ordinary people who'd been fired as extras, and their unscripted remarks ought to strike plenty of chords in these economically uncertain times. Yet as morally reprehensible as his job is, Ryan is no monster. He believes in his job, believes that it is necessary, that what he does is an act of kindness to people who are hurt and vulnerable. And that again makes him a sympathetic, real person - a professional, who does his job and takes pride in it and doesn't make a big drama about quitting because he has a character arc to act out. It's telling that, as he grows more and more disillusioned by his life on the road and alone, he never really feels that way about his job.

But I'm getting ahead of myself again. Ryan does have a character arc, and it's handled very delicately. How does a man as self-assured as Ryan, who is so satisfied by the lifestyle of his choosing, come to be disillusioned by it? By the confluence of those three events that form the story, any one or even two of which would probably not have done the trick. He falls for Alex, obviously, and when he invites her to his sister's wedding, it turns from a grudging family obligation into a warm homecoming. It's a little contrived that Ryan finds himself advising the groom (played by Danny McBride) when he gets cold feet, but forgivable. And in Natalie, he sees his younger (and probably much less cynical) self, how much potential she has, and how much he has squandered his own. Going back to that scene with Natalie's comment on Alex's age; Alex isn't fazed by it in the least, because she is entirely comfortable with who she is. It is Ryan who looks bemused and even embarrassed; it is he who feels his age, and feels that he's accomplished nothing of real value with it.

All three of the principal actors received Oscar nods, and while I have no opinion whatsoever on whether they deserved it, they definitely deliver fine performances here. There's not a hint of the smooth ladykiller he's known for in George Clooney's performance; even his first meeting with Alex is more due to common interests than a deliberate pickup of a gorgeous lady at a bar. And despite his movie-star good looks, Clooney proves to be a solid enough actor to transcend them. He shares some killer chemistry with Vera Farmiga, and it almost makes me want to put the "Romance" label on this post. Farmiga herself is incredibly sexy here, and it's almost entirely due to her elegance and confidence rather than her looks. And wow, isn't Anna Kendrick cute? But she's terrific too, holding her own against Clooney and making the wide-eyed Natalie into a formidable match for the worldly Ryan. She and Clooney have that rare cinematic opposite-sex relationship that doesn't turn romantic or sexual.

I sometimes wonder if my reviews don't often end up as just me talking about the movie, about individual scenes or characters or themes that I liked, rather than properly reviewing it as a whole. If I'm doing that here, it's only because there's so much that I liked. It drags a little midway through, which may be because I've watched so many movies that 90 minutes is feeling more and more like the right length of a movie to me. And the subplot of Ryan having a side career as a motivational speaker seems like dead weight, but that could just be because the friend I watched this with also accompanied me to Love Happens. But as I exhorted in my last review, do try to catch this or something like it - smart, honest, true-to-life films - instead of the next big, loud and dumb blockbuster-wannabe. Films like these will make you a better person.

NEXT REVIEW: From Paris with Love
Expectations: still looks like fun


McGarmott said...

Errr ... no. Sorry. It was a sometimes boring and mostly pointless television movie. Nice effort on the script. But beyond that, it mystifies me why it was nominated for any of the acting awards, and direction (???) and picture (?????!).

Besides, I want to see Ryan Bingham's worldview affirmed, not defeated by some schmaltzy, ooh-people-need-connection message.

TMBF said...

Sounds like you want the movie to be something it isn't. That's not very fair. ;)