Monday, December 14, 2009

'Up in the Air' earns its high praise

Douglas Adams begins his book "The Long, Dark Tea-time of the Soul" with the following hilarious observation:

"It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the phrase, 'as pretty as an airport.' Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their language has just landed in Murmansk. (Murmansk airport is the only known exception to this otherwise infallible rule)..."

Indeed, an airport terminal is nobody's favorite place to spend several hours. Except, for Ryan Bingham, that is. In "Up in the Air," Bingham (played by George Clooney) feels entirely at home in the gray purgatory of departure lounges across the continental United States. Good thing, too, since Bingham's business keeps him on the road more days per year than BB King. It's when he returns home to his apartment, which is more spartan than a jail cell, that he feels mordantly uneasy about his solitary existence. While he's on the road, surrounded by a constant bustle of fellow travelers, he's able to stave off any feelings of existential angst.

Ironically, this loner has one expertise in life: people skills. He travels across to firms across the country to lay off people by using his furrowed brow of concern and well-practiced conciliatory patter to dampen the slap of the pink slip. Unlike the devastated former employees he leaves in his wake, he gets a good night's sleep thanks to the bonus points he racks up in well-appointed hotel rooms. He also flies business class, clocking frequent flier air miles as a hobby of sorts (he's counting down the number of flights until he reaches a golden number attained by only 7 other passengers).

Then, one day, his cozy existence is upended by news that his job is about to become automated. A new hire at the firm -- a young upstart fresh out of business school named Natalie Keener -- has devised a system that allows one to fire people via online teleconferencing. Bingham is devastated since it means that his days on the road will soon be over. Fortunately, he convinces his boss (a smarmy Jason Bateman) that Natalie sorely needs to experience the interpersonal dynamics of laying off people in person. So he takes her out on the road with him. Also complicating Bingham's routine: A fling with Alex (Vera Farmiga), a business woman he meets at a hotel lounge.

Won't say much more about the plot of this tremendous movie, which is based on a novel by Walter Kirn. Suffice to say that "Up in the Air" is one of 2009's finest films and that's because it had the Reitman for the job. That would be Jason Reitman -- sorry, couldn't resist the pun -- who previously helmed "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno." He's a director with exquisite taste for material that is dramatic, funny, moving, and thoughtful. And, in this movie, incredibly sexy. The smoldering scenes between Clooney and Farmiga spark with such intensity that someone may yell "Fire" in a crowded theater.

This is Clooney's finest role to date. I wish that the actor's familiar, well-oiled charm was rustier in this role but he allows one to see the shadows inside the creases on his face and, slowly, we see what a sad a figure lies beneath the character's polished veneer.

"Up in the Air" is a blessing for Farmiga who, in the movie's best scene, delivers a great speech that, in hindsight, casts a shadow. The actress should have gone on to big things after her role in "The Departed" and an LA Film Critics award for her harrowing performance in "Down to the Bone." Instead she found herself languishing in two thankless horror movies about deadly adopted orphans ("Joshua" and "Orphan"). Farmiga should now be able to knock on the door marked "A-list."

Anna Kendrick, to date renowned as "the best friend" in the Twilight series, offers much needed levity as Natalie, the tightly wound Type-A who learns life lessons out on the road. It's a showy role that ought to earn Kendrick a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars.

Another thing I appreciated: Reitman doesn't try to vilify companies or make some lofty anti-capitalism statement. In newscasts, one frequently sees stories about people losing their jobs because of plants shutting down or companies downsizing or outsourcing. But what is never seen, or captured by the media, is how these painful adjustments in the economy play out in the long run. How resources are reallocated (to use cold econo-speak) in more productive ways and how people adjust to their circumstances. Indeed, there's a great scene in which one laid-off employee wonders what he's going to do now. The Bingham character makes him realize that he has a particular talent that he's never utilized and could result in a far more satisfying new career.

Moreover, the movie hones in on what jobs and career mean to us, and just how much meaning we invest in our work. It certainly reminded me how much of my identity has been tied up in a job in the past. When people are let go, it's emotionally devastating and the movie doesn't flinch at depicting that. The authenticity of such scenes isn't accidental. Reitman posted ads inviting recently fired people to be interviewed on film. Those scenes with non actors pack a punch that, fortunately, the fictional drama is able to match.

"Up in the Air" is, as the movie tagline advertises, is "a story of a man about to make a connection." But its not a predictable story and it'll stay with you. Even the open credit sequence lingers...

I hope "Up in the Air" puts bums in seats. The prospect of spending so much screen time inside an airport terminals may not be an easy sell when the theater next door is transporting "Avatar" viewers to the 3-D planet of Pandora. Moreover, the trailers for "Up in the Air" may trigger unfortunate flashbacks to Tom Hanks in "The Terminal." But trust me on this. "Up in the Air" has stayed with me since I saw it a couple of weeks ago. It's the sort of classy, star-driven, middlebrow movie that Hollywood seems to reluctant to finance anymore.

Recent upscale, middlebrow fare such as "Michael Clayton," "State of Play," "Duplicity," "Charlie Wilson's War," "Public Enemies," and "The International" haven't exactly troubled the folks who crunch numbers over at Box Office Mojo.

Unfortunately, too many stars have insisted on big salaries for such movies, making it more difficult to recoup costs. Star power isn't the commodity it used to be. Films such as "Juno" and "Slumdog Millionaire" prove that a great story without marquee names can still draw an audience.

Poor marketing may be to blame for the failure of some of the afore-mentioned movies, according to the ever-astute Anne Thompson. The success of "Julie & Julia" demonstrates that adult dramas can pull in older punters. Well that, and Meryl Streep.

Nonetheless, studios seem more interested in stories geared at 13-year-olds (or the 13-year-old in you). Certainly, films such as "Transformers" and "2012" carry far less risk than the types of adult-oriented dramas the studios used to make in the 1970s. To that end, the big studios have closed down specialty divisions (Paramount Vantage + Warner Independent + Vantage). Moreover, the indie sector has collapsed as a result of the credit crunch and, let's face it, such contraction was inevitable after a period of over-expansion in which just about anybody could get financing for a movie. Even the Weinstein Brothers are rumored to be in serious financial trouble (though "Inglorious Basterds" may have offered a stay of execution for their company).

So I hope "Up in the Air" is a success at the ticket counter and at the Oscar podium. It may encourage Hollywood to continue making movies that focus on people rather than pixels.

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