Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Movie Review: Up in the Air

Rated: R

Website: Official Up in the Air site

Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman

My Review: There’s not a whole lot I can say about Up in the Air that hasn’t already been said a thousand times; it’s timely, poignant, funny, sad, uncomfortably true to life, and an all-around great movie. And yes, if it starred anyone other than George Clooney, it probably would have been a disaster.

Clooney is Ryan Bingham, a corporate stooge that you would love to hate, if only he weren’t so mild-mannered and charming. The majority of his life if spent traveling around the country to various downsizing businesses in order to do the dirty work the bosses aren’t willing to do themselves—drop the axe on the laid-off employees. It’s a job that sounds like a nightmare to any sane person, but it suits Ryan’s perpetual bachelor-with-no-ties lifestyle perfectly (plus the guy’s home base is in Omaha, so I can’t blame him for not wanting to stick around there too often). But when recent college grad Natalie has the brilliant idea of doing the lay-offs via teleconference—thus saving their company all those traveling costs—Ryan sees the threat of being grounded as a complete devastation to the way of life he relishes. So his boss challenges him to take Natalie on the road with him to show her the ropes and prove that his job can’t be down via computer. Trips are made, lessons are learned, bonds are formed and broken, and Ryan comes out on the other side questioning things that never even occurred to him to consider.

Up in the Air belongs to whoever plays Ryan, so it’s a testament to the budding genius of director Jason Reitman that he insisted on getting Clooney to play the part. With the wrong actor, Ryan could so easily become the guy you hate, with his smug love of a hedonistic lifestyle that revolves around fancy hotels, frequent flier miles, and casual on-the-road sex. Not to mention that his life is funded by the devastation of the many innocent employees he lets go. But somehow—miraculously—with Clooney at the helm, you can’t hate Ryan. He still embodies plenty of odious qualities, but you still root for him and hope that his personal quest will lead him to a more fulfilled life. I chalk it up to Clooney’s “It” factor; it’s something that can’t be explained, but his natural ability to be charming in any situation is undeniable.

Given the current economic state, a movie that revolves around laying off hardworking employees could be the ultimate downer, but Up in the Air manages to create a feeling of hope. With every downsizing trip he makes, Ryan reminds the newly unemployed that change isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just change. It can be turned into new opportunities and a time for personal reflection, or even the chance to go back and pursue what your heart actually desires. Sentiments that would sound hollow and/or cheesy if delivered the wrong way manage to be heartfelt and true when handled in this movie.

I was let go from my former position due to corporate downsizing about a year ago, which made Up in the Air hit a major personal note with me. During the process I had to deal with a figure much like Ryan; not for the actual layoff—which my overly-coiffed boss let a middle manager handle so he wouldn’t have to dirty his hands—but after I got the bad news he was the one with the infamous “packet” and the words of encouragement. And just like Ryan, he was serene and sympathetic, and friendly enough so that I would feel comfortable talking to him, but not so friendly as to make me think we were actually friends. But as cool and detached as people in that sort of position have to be, the points they make are true, which you recognize once the anger, depression, and binge-eating stages have ended: It’s a tough time right now for everyone, but we all muddle through as best we can, and hopefully manage to make something positive out of it in the end. Any movie that can manage to make me feel slightly optimistic about one of the worst things that has ever happened to me definitely gets a thumb’s up in my book.

Bottom Line: We all knew George Clooney could do sexy and playful, but now he can add poignant personal journey to his resume. Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick also shine as his love interest and plucky coworker, respectively, make Up in the Air a wonderful movie about a man with a horrible job.

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