Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review - Up in the Air

In Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a man who has made a virtue of isolation. His job has him travelling the length and breadth of the country, firing employees on behalf of companies who can't do it for themselves, and ensuring he spends at least 300 days of the year on the road – or, more accurately, in the air. "To know me is to fly with me," Ryan Bingham states in his opening voiceover; he has no use for the trappings of friends and family, or the comfort of home. In his sideline as a motivational speaker, he delivers a carefully prepared backpack metaphor, asking his audience to imagine themselves being weighed down by all of the unnecessary encumbrances we collect as we pass through this life. "Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime" he announces, "Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks."

Whether he's consoling a fired worker with glib sentiments or addressing an auditorium full of businessmen, Ryan Bingham is a smooth operator, and the role fits Clooney like a tailored suit. Pitch-perfect casting has made many films seem better than they are, and that's true of Up in the Air, which glides by on charisma and wit for close to two hours, but quickly slips from the memory afterwards. It is elevated by Reitman's undeniable ability to bring the best out of his exceptional actors, but is there anything substantial to Up in the Air beneath the admittedly immaculate surface? I'm not sure. At its heart, the film is a standard narrative about a self-centred man learning to question the way he has lived his life, with the love of a good woman and a period spent with his homely family being the catalysts for change. Up in the Air is at its best before it gets bogged down with Bingham's predictable transformation, when it is unafraid of displaying some ambiguity about his lifestyle choices. As it progresses, the film retreats into familiarity. It grows into something that's safe and unchallenging, revealing its depth and its resonance with current events to be little more than an illusion.

Having said that, I can't deny it is a pleasure to watch. Reitman is a pedestrian filmmaker, but he has a sharp ear for dialogue and, as he has shown in all three of his features, he's very much an actors' director. The two women who disrupt Clooney's contentedly lonesome life are beautifully played; Anna Kendrick hits exactly the right note as the ambitious but insecure up-and-comer whose plans threaten Bingham's carefree existence, and Vera Farmiga is sensational as the woman he begins a casual relationship with before losing his heart to her. Clooney is so often described as the modern-day Cary Grant, so it's surprising that more filmmakers don't take advantage of this by giving him a Rosalind Russell or Katharine Hepburn to star alongside. He always seems to raise his game when he has a strong female lead to spar with – look at Out of Sight or Intolerable Cruelty for proof – and the chemistry he shares with Farmiga's Alex is dazzling. A sharper, bolder and better movie would have taken this pair down a more interesting path, but that's not the game Reitman is playing. Up in the Air is exactly what the director wants it to be – a solid, effective crowd-pleaser; the kind of movie that hangs around just long enough to win awards, before quietly floating away.