Up in the Air ****½
One of the big hitters amongst this year’s Oscar contenders, Up in the Air comes with some quite impressive credentials to back up its award aspirations. Director Jason Reitman was the man behind the multi award nominated and winning films Juno and Thank You For Smoking, both of which showed him to be a director capable of delivering some truly unique, one-off type films that really stand out from the crowd. His latest directorial effort is perhaps a bigger challenge than either of those films, however, as he has to take a concept that, in the wrong hands, could easily end up seeming contrived, uninteresting and self-indulgent and make it into a film that we can both care and enjoy about. Fortunately, he has the right cast for the job with Oscar winner George Clooney’s natural charm and charisma making for the perfect leading man, and already attracting substantial awards buzz. But does the film really live up to this promise or are its Oscar aspirations completely Up in the Air?
Corporate downsizer Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is the consummate modern business traveller, his job – firing people and being a motivational speaker – taking him all over the country. He is totally content with his unencumbered lifestyle of airports, hotels and rental cars. A pampered and privileged member of every travel loyalty scheme in existence, he can carry all he needs in one wheel-away case – and he’s close to attaining his lifetime goal of 10 million frequent flier miles. There’s even romance in the air when Ryan meets the stunning Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), who shares his world view and may just be the person to change his life forever. However, Ryan’s boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), inspired by young, upstart efficiently expert Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), threatens to permanently call Ryan in from the road. Faced with the prospect of being grounded, Ryan begins to contemplate what it might actually mean to have a home, and discovers what his privileged lifestyle has cost him.
Up in the Air is easily the most high profile of this year’s Oscar contenders but not only that it just may be the best. A true one-off, it takes elements that could seem extremely disparate in incapable hands and, thanks to superb piloting from Jason Reitman, brings all the elements together to make a coherent, almost beautiful whole. There is hardly a negative word that can be said about this film. For starters, in a career which has consisted of many great performances, star George Clooney delivers what is probably one of his finest performances yet. His character is one that in theory we should immediately dislike – he fires people for a living, he gets to live a pampered lifestyle for doing so and he really a rather selfish individual – yet Clooney makes it that we don’t hate him, in fact growing to rather like the man. Much of this can be attributed to Clooney’s natural charisma and charm but there is more also. He doesn’t portray his character as a stereotype but as a fully rounded human being, one who does have a purpose in life, albeit one that differs considerably from what everyone else considers to be normal. He not only wins us over with his charm but also moves us as his character begins to realize what he has been missing out on in his life. It isn’t just Clooney who shines though but pretty much the entire cast. Vera Farmiga is far from the conventional love interest. Her character being the female equivalent to Clooney’s, she delivers a performance that is strong and independent. She doesn’t fall in love with the protagonist and when the relationship moves in unexpected directions she is not the one who gets hurt. It is refreshing to see such an unconventional relationship as this depicted on the big screen and the sizzling chemistry between Clooney and Farmiga really brings it to life. Up and coming star Anna Kendrick is also fantastic, delivering a believable performance as a young executive, initially very intense and focused but soon becoming extremely tender and emotional as her character realizes the true implications of her job. She too has a great chemistry with Clooney, albeit more in the father-daughter kind of sense, her character going on as much a journey as Clooney’s and being just as big a part of the film. There are also great performances from the film’s smaller players, including Jason Bateman as Bingham’s boss and Sam Elliott as pilot Maynard Finch, not to mention all the fired employees, two played by Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons, the rest played by real people who lost their jobs during the recession and answered an ad put out by the filmmakers. All were instructed to treat the camera like it was the person who fired them and either respond as they did or use the opportunity to say what they wished they had. This is one of the touches of brilliance that really makes the film stand out as these responses are not ‘fake’ performances but the real deal, and this isn’t where the realism ends, Reitman’s decision to film in real airports really adding an extra level of authenticity. Such authenticity is also reflected in the screenplay, co-written by Reitman himself. The story is very strong with superbly developed, fully fleshed out characters that we can really care about and dialogue that is as sharp as it is convincing. While the film is very much a drama first and foremost, there are also plenty of laugh out loud moments, based around smart humour rather than throwaway gags. Not only does the film have substance, though, but Reitman has also crafted a film that manages to be as visually appealing as it is moving and funny. The cinematography – including very well done aerial shots – is excellent, as is the editing, and there is a really classy look to everything. Events on screen are also enhances thanks to a great soundtrack which really empathises the moods. So, Up in the Air is a film that many great things can be said about. It is nice to look at, showcases great performances from actors and non-actors alike, is very moving and also very very funny. This film’s Oscar chances are definitely very grounded.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
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