Honorable Mentions: Funny People, Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince, Precious, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Two Lovers, Up in the Air
Up in the Air is a bitingly funny, astute observation of contemporary America with a calculated sting in its tail. George Clooney stars as Ryan, a corporate downsizer who travels across America being hired by companies that are too timid to lay off their own employees. His solitary existence that blissfully capitalizes on other people’s misfortune is challenged when a precocious new employee (Anna Kendrick) at his company suggests a video conferencing feature that threatens to put an end to Ryan’s jet setting.
Clooney gives one of his most vulnerable performances and yet there’s no mawkish Oscar moment to be found. There’s a prime set-up for one when he visits with his brother-in-law-to-be on the wedding day but the movie resists the urge to swell into a grandstanding burst of emotions and stays true to the character’s instincts and intentions. Instead, Clooney’s performance hinges on quiet shots where a sublimated expression says everything.
The film does not shy away from the painful reflection of America’s current reality. In perhaps the film’s strongest moment, Ryan’s boss (played with impeccable familiarity by Jason Bateman) surveys the nationwide layoffs and states with opportunistic relish, “This is our moment.” In order to confront the issue head on, writer/director Jason Reitman reportedly recorded interviews with real people who had been laid off recently. Snippets of these interviews are spliced into sequences featuring performances by the likes of Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons. It’s a brilliant idea but I wonder if these “reality bites” are integrated too seamlessly into the film proper. Reitman does not use the familiar signals of reality (zooms, grainy footage, wobbly framing, offscreen interview questions, stammering) and I wonder, if I hadn’t read the article in The New York Times about the interviews, would I have been able to distinguish them from the performances? Maybe this actually speaks to the veracity of these interviews; Reitman clearly didn’t feel he had to convince anyone they were real through aesthetics and felt confident enough to insert them without ceremony.
The film’s other master stroke of zeitgeist awareness is its commentary on technology and the decline of human interaction – not for nothing are the human components of the video conferencing initiative briefly referred to as terminators.
This is the third film directed by Jason Reitman and once again, he does a remarkable job of not letting his identity overwhelm the film’s temperament. He has all the potential to become a prominent auteur figure – a legendary Hollywood father (think Sophia Coppola), a publicized promotional tour that includes social media (Quentin Tarrentino) and a vocalized political stance (not quite Michael Moore level). At just 32 years old he’s already received a Writer’s Guild nomination and an Oscar nomination for Best Director and is poised to at the very least rack up a Best Picture nomination for producing Up in the Air. But despite these laurels, he’s had the wisdom to let another collaborator’s persona overshadow all three of his films: Clooney here, Aaron Eckhart’s performance in Thank You for Smoking and Diablo Cody’s screenplay in Juno.
This is not to say his films aren’t distinct or full of stylistic flourishes (i.e. Up in the Air’s overhead location shots or the fast cuts in the beginning) but there’s never a single element that makes me think, “Ah, that’s such a Reitman quality!” Prior to seeing Up in the Air, a friend said they were looking forward to the movie because “they liked that Reitman fellow” and I agreed without hesitation. Afterwards I found myself wondering, wait, do I like Jason Reitman? I thought Thank You for Smoking was alright and I disliked Juno with great intensity, what constitutes my appreciation for him as a director? Well, he did direct one of my favorite episodes of The Office (Local Ad) but that’s not it. It’s his chameleon-like ability to make three very distinct films with an almost workmanlike sensibility. I couldn’t stomach the hyperactive self-aware dialogue in Juno but I’m not inclined to blame Reitman for that. In fact, I’m likely to credit him with the fleeting moments in which I almost started to like that movie.
But with Up in the Air, he has made his most consistent – and therefore, best – movie. It’s the one that convinces me he has a long and celebrated Hollywood career ahead of him and gives me the answer to my internal uncertainty… yes, I do like that Reitman fellow.