REVIEW: “Up in the Air” (****)

Posted by · 6:42 am · September 6th, 2009

Up in the AirTelluride Film Festival

Jason Reitman began adapting Walter Kirn’s novel “Up in the Air” five or six years ago (in the wake of an earlier draft by Sheldon Turner).  The country was on better economic turf, he wasn’t married, he didn’t have a child.  He was drawn to a book jacket with a quote from his friend, “Thank You for Smoking” author Christopher Buckley, enchanted by a lead character obsessed with collecting frequent flyer miles who lives a single-serving lifestyle from airport to airport.

Today, unemployment rates are skyrocketing, tangible human connectivity is becoming a relic of another century, Reitman has settled down with a wife and daughter and futures all around are uncertain.  But in some ways, there is hope, a sense of turning an all important corner.  By the end of “Up in the Air,” that is just where Reitman has left his protagonist.

Meanwhile, Kirn’s novel has been transformed from an otherwise unremarkable example of corporate comedy into a piece at once deeply personal and serendipitously relevant.  This is one of the year’s finest films.

George Clooney stars in perhaps the role of his career (one certainly drawing parallels to his own lifestyle) as Ryan Bingham, a career transition counselor who zips from hub to hub 270 days a year.  In a nutshell, he is part of a third party firm hired out to corporations for the purposes of firing discontinued clientele.   He lives a life of isolation, a stranger to his Midwest family, who sees him rarely and kills his commitment-less buzz anytime they call with an update.

He has airport check-in down to a science, stereotypically zeroing in on those who are quickest to follow behind at security, Moonwalking out of his shoes as he does so, his luggage immaculately packed, his system a work of streamlined art.  When he isn’t letting people go in the name of other companies, he gives motivational addresses meant to steer attendees clear of the extra baggage in their life, their commitments, extraneous relationships, anything that keeps them from living a life as he believes it is meant to be lived: in motion.

Ryan is, for lack of a better cliche, an island unto himself.

(from left) Anna Kendrick and George Clooney in Up in the AirThis extravagantly absentee lifestyle is interrupted when Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a 23-year-old corporate-minded upstart, introduces a new technology to Ryan’s company that can allow the job to be done remotely, cutting down on travel costs, amping up the frequency and, essentially, rendering people like Ryan obsolete.

With Ryan objecting on the basis of unsubstantial delicacy with this lack of a personal touch, the film introduces its first paradox.  While he may be perfectly content to fly about the country with little more than one-night-stands to show for personal connection, he understands the importance of looking people in the eye, in the flesh, when they are at one of their weakest, most insecure moments.

It is the beginning of a compelling arc that goes into deeply emotional territory before Ryan is set off on his newly enlightened course by film’s end, something like a phoenix risen from the ashes of a selfish, unfulfilled existence.

George Clooney sticks the landing with his performance in the most modest manner imaginable.  There will be flashier performances this year, certainly more memorable ones.  It isn’t the actor’s finest work to date and he will likely give better performances in the future, but it is doubtful he will ever have the opportunity to be this authentic and to stare character parallels such as these directly in the eye ever again.

Ryan is a man happy to be single, without children, a playboy of the sky.  He was written with Clooney in mind and the actor deserves a glass raised high for tackling, however subtly, his own image in this way.

George Clooney in Up in the AirAnna Kendrick is wonderful as a naive firecracker vulnerable to the typical stings of youth: love lost, ambitious dreams, professional inexperience.  As Alex, a love interest who brings out the most refined detail in Ryan’s characterization, Vera Farmiga hints at deep waters and complex emotions that live in her expressions, her steady gaze.  The two in tandem make for an intriguing set of diverging paths for Ryan, the choice of his life path laid bare.

But the star of the production is Jason Reitman, who has crafted a screenplay both profound and entertaining, one with comedic rhythms that sing and emotional beats that resonate.  That the effort is wrapped, on the surface, in a very timely tale that will hit the zeitgeist at just the right moment is testament to his patience with the project, one that has been nourished from a harmless romp, through a life accentuated by significant change, into a work of art.

I have no problems being forthcoming with the fact that this film hit me on a personal level.  In my view, authoritative criticisms of films that don’t carry across an indication of personal impact are in some ways suspect.  Everyone brings something different to the table.

Perhaps the film settled for me at the right time in my life, a crossroads of understanding the necessity to plunge into life, to grow up, to recognize the power of our relationships with people, etc.  But as a friend reminded, everyone is at this crossroads, regardless of age.

“Up in the Air” speaks to this.  It finds a universal rhythm and lives in that space, making for one of the most effective works of the year.

→ 26 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

26 responses so far

  • 1 9-06-2009 at 7:03 am

    Loyal said...

    Great review.

    I too have family in the midwest I’ve gone years without seeing because I travel so much for work (roughly 300 days a year). I fly in a given year more than most people in their lifetime.

    This film could hit pretty close to home, can’t wait to see it and ponder my own island existence (About A Boy also explored that material fairly well).

    One question/issue with your review. In terms of Clooney, you mention it’s the “role of his career” but you then say it “isn’t the actor’s finest work to date.” Which is it?

  • 2 9-06-2009 at 7:19 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Put it this way. The role is his greatest opportunity to date, but one that doesn’t call on him to give a capital G “Great” performance.

  • 3 9-06-2009 at 7:41 am

    snowballa said...

    i thought the script was okay at best. maybe george elevates it on screen.

  • 4 9-06-2009 at 7:44 am

    Dickie said...

    So you think Anna Kedrick can be nominated for it?

  • 5 9-06-2009 at 8:53 am

    head_wizard said...

    Nice review, it probably won’t hit me on a personal level like you I don’t travel much. But Reitman has been great with all his material to date and it sounds like he does it again. Can’t wait to see this.

  • 6 9-06-2009 at 10:06 am

    JAB said...

    Kris you’ve definitely piqued my interest here, I had been admittedly suspicious of this film since the buzz started to build, but it just skyrocketed into my list of must see films.

  • 7 9-06-2009 at 10:25 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Wizard: it’s not the travel so much as the urge to move forward in life.

  • 8 9-06-2009 at 10:42 am

    Bill said...

    Is it funny?

    And will it make you rethink your best of the decade list?

  • 9 9-06-2009 at 11:21 am

    Mark Kratina said...

    Was pretty excited for this film, anyway. Now I’m pumped- it is my #1 to see film of the year.

    Thanks for the review, Kris. it was well-written and well-thought out. I appreciate you giving the personal touch on how the film reached you. I have a feeling its themes will have something to say to me as well as many of us and our respective places in the world and how much we want other people involved in those places.

    Did you hear of a release date? December?

  • 10 9-06-2009 at 11:22 am

    Loyal said...

    Dec 4th

  • 11 9-06-2009 at 11:33 am

    Jay said...

    One thing Kris, if you don’t mind me asking… Did you like the film more than Juno? I remember you were an admirer of the film in 2007, and likewise for me – I don’t know but something about just impacted me so hugely. I was wondering if I could expect the same impact with Up in the Air or if you felt it impacted you more.

  • 12 9-06-2009 at 12:10 pm

    RichardA said...

    It is interesting to see how the movie will reflect the mood of the country when it comes out, and more importantly when it the ballots are due.

    Movies are great when they can hit us on a very personal level. Cool.

    I wonder if it has any danger of being compared to Don Draper and whole production of Mad Men.

  • 13 9-06-2009 at 12:20 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Meanwhile, Kirn’s novel has been transformed from an otherwise unremarkable example of corporate comedy into a piece at once deeply personal and serendipitously relevant.”

    I’m so relieved to hear you say this: I was starting to wonder if I’d seriously missed the boat when I read the novel.

    Needless to say, looking forward to this immensely, and now not just to satisfy my Vera Farmiga fandom.

  • 14 9-06-2009 at 1:12 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    So, Kris, as far as Jason Reitman films go, is this more Thank You For Smoking or is it more Juno? Or is it something else?

  • 15 9-06-2009 at 2:36 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    It’s something else entirely. I think it’s his best film. It’s more intimate in many ways. It isn’t the zinger-every-minute comedy of Smoking and it’s not the stylized comedy of Juno. It’s something more natural, and still hilarious. It’s comedy that speaks truths, I think.

  • 16 9-06-2009 at 3:33 pm

    Danny said...

    Nothing much more that I can say other than it’s one of my most anticipated films of the rest of the year.

  • 17 9-06-2009 at 6:04 pm

    Kevin said...

    I’m actually in shock today. My thoughts are almost in complete sync with Kris. :)

    What more could I say about Jason Reitman’s best film to date? Kris literally took the words out of my mouth.

  • 18 9-06-2009 at 11:16 pm

    Alex said...

    Jeff Wells : An Education = Kris Tapley : Up in the Air

    Discuss with reference to the text.

  • 19 9-06-2009 at 11:22 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Why discuss something so pointless?

    Though, interestingly enough, you can count on a number of comparison pieces written on the two films throughout the year. They have striking similarities.

  • 20 9-07-2009 at 9:19 am

    head_wizard said...

    Ah the desire to move foward that probably will hit me a bit harder. Still can’t wait. Also interesting the odd comparison of An Education and Up in the Air. They are my two most anticipated films.

  • 21 9-09-2009 at 7:02 pm

    m1 said...

    This looks more serious than what I’ve heard of the film to be a comedy. I hope this gets a PG-13. I don’t think it can get something lower.