"The slower we move, the faster we die," says Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), the key player in director Jason Reitman's latest and best film to date, "Up in the Air," the story of a self-proclaimed "Termination Facilitator," whose entire professional career is aimed never weighing down his life with more than can fit in the space of a backpack.
Brilliant and bold, Reitman's "Up in the Air" is the perfect film for the times, a film that deals straight ahead with a messed up economy but manages to do so funny yet tactful, richly human without becoming dark and depressing. Reitman's stroke of genius begins with the way he incorporates non-actors playing out variations on their real life stories of being fired amongst the far lighter dramatized experiences from the likes of Zach Galifianakis and Reitman regular J.K. Simmons.
Clooney's Bingham is among the best in his field, a man on the road 322 days of the year and whose return to his home in Omaha, Nebraska reveals a rather sterile environment indicative of his lack of desire for anything resembling commitment to enter his life. To everyone but his boss (a smooth and smarmy Jason Bateman), Bingham is absolutely, 100% unreliable. However, when it comes to stepping in for employers unable or unwilling to do the dirty work of layoffs or terminations Bingham is as reliable as a person can get.
Clooney's performance in "Up in the Air" looks effortless, a perfect blend of Clooney's trademark smoothness, humor and guy next door charm. Days after you've seen "Up in the Air," however, Clooney's take on Ryan Bingham will still be having its way with you in the way only a brilliant performance can do. This IS the perfect role for Clooney, and Clooney takes Ryan Bingham places no other actor would even think of going.
Alex (Vera Farmiga) is nearly his equal, a frequent flyer mile-loving jetsetter whose knowledge of life on the road is rivaled by Clooney and not too many others. Farmiga, one of Hollywood's most dependable and underrated actresses, deserves all the Oscar buzz she's getting for her take on Alex, who describes herself to Bingham as "you with a vagina." The chemistry between Alex and Ryan is comfortable enough to be believable, yet controlled enough to make it utterly believable that these two perfectly complementary people are most perfect when not truly committed to one another.
Eventually, the realities of the economy hit even Bingham's company when up-and-coming recent Cornell grad Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) develops a new method of web-based termination that threatens to end Bingham's road warrior ways. Kendrick, a relative newcomer, is sort of the anti-Bingham, a perky and optimistic type who is hired on without really having a clue about the realities of the corporate world. In an effort to convince her that her ideas are without merit, Bingham and Keener hit the road and the result gives Clooney's Bingham his perfect foil while giving Reitman's film a delightful dose of comic relief.
While Kendrick seems to be getting most of the hardcore Oscar buzz right now for her leading performance, Farmiga's Alex is more satisfying for this critic's money, a perfect blend of smart and sexy that is just plain weightier than Kendrick's entertaining yet more novelty performance.
Somehow, Reitman manages to hold everything in "Up in the Air" together, creating a film that manages to have a heart without becoming overly sentimental while also being embodied with Reitman's well known cynicism, wit and hipster mentality. Yet, what makes "Up in the Air" Reitman's best film to date is that it doesn't depend on any single signature to carry it along. "Thank You for Smoking" was a biting, cynical social commentary, while "Juno" was 100% reliant on its hipster lingo and mentality. "Up in the Air" is, quite refreshingly, simply a beautifully made film in which the story and its characters live out the best and worst traits that society has to offer.
Based upon a novel by Walter Kim, "Up in the Air" is easily one of 2009's best films and a sure-fire best picture nominee come awards season along with likely nods for Clooney, Farmiga, Kendrick and director Reitman.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic