Three films in, four Oscar noms to date, Jason Reitman appears to be doing something right.
First came the witty, wry Thank You For Smoking, then the breakout Juno and now the much-lauded Up In The Air, a film so topical it has ‘modern issues’ running through its veins. George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is a professional terminator, a hired gun flown in to make redundancies for companies who don’t like to do their own dirty work. (Issue 1: the behaviour of Corporate America.) And, as Ryan’s own boss – a slightly underwritten and unnecessarily bearded Jason Bateman – points out, business is booming. (Issue 2: the recession.)
Fortunately, Ryan is good at handing out bad news, even if sacked employees can get understandably upset. (Issue 3: people’s sense of worth is often tied to their careers). Ryan’s talent comes from genuinely believing his own motivational spiel that you shouldn’t get too tied down to anything or anyone. (Issue 4: commitment.) Instead, he spends most of his time on the road – or rather, in the air, and that’s how he likes it.
Living out of a stowable wheeled suitcase, staying in good hotels, always on the move. Even his own flat resembles a barely-furnished motel room. Possessions drag you down; Ryan would rather be earning air miles and their associated perks. (Issue 5: modern status symbols.)
Given all this, it’s a testament to both Clooney’s maturing talents and big-screen charisma that Ryan remains a sympathetic character. In any case, as the story turns, three women nudge him to question his life choices. First up is Natalie (Anna Kendrick providing Issues 6 and 7: the folly of youth; the march of technology). She has a plan, and the software, to keep Ryan and his colleagues permanently grounded: why spend money on flights when you can sack someone with a laptop and Skype account?
Next up is Alex (Vera Farmiga). A sensuous, pragmatic fellow traveller who offers no-strings sex and worldliness that starts to draw Ryan ever closer. (Issue 8: our need to connect.) Every scene between Farmiga and Clooney plays out like an old-school romcom: pithy, cute volley-and-return fun, albeit in a somewhat different movie to the one we started watching with ‘real people’ reacting to their sackings.
Finally, there’s Ryan’s sister Kara (Amy Morton): the most underwritten female role of the three (and that’s saying something) but still the closest to a fully-rounded, believable human being. Her demands on Ryan’s time and mild scorn for his ‘escape’ from ordinary life are where the film feels most real and least Hollywood. (Issue 9: the refuge of family.)
What emerges is a beautifully performed, polished piece of cinema that never leans too far either side of the fence. And as such, never really resolves any of the issues it highlights. Indeed, a recurring suspicion is starting to linger with Reitman’s films. A feeling that old-fashioned movies (both politically and tonally) are being dressed up with indie quirk and modern sensibilities that flatter to deceive. The one-liner-heavy Thank You For Smoking was too scattergun in its satire to land any punches and too enamoured of its protagonist to offer much insight. The result? Enjoyable but less than the sum of its parts.
Juno’s attempt to play as both hipster flick and crowd pleaser seemed to enrage those who consider themselves cool while derailing the final act’s sentiment, which also felt borrowed from another movie. Excellent performances and energetic charm kept things on track… just. But both films suffer on second viewing. The same is true of Up In The Air.
Once you know how it’s going to play out, the characters never really seem to be going anywhere. This is a film that hints at a journey but never actually takes it. Of course, cynicism and emotion are difficult bedfellows. But when they come together, as they did for, say, Billy Wilder or more recently Alexander Payne, the result is piercing, poignant, profound. Up In The Air looks like that kind of film but isn’t. It’s always smooth – it just never quite soars.
The extras are similarly tidy but underwhelming. Reitman’s commentary (with DoP Eric Steelberg and first AD Jason Blumenfeld) is chatty and friendly but primarily sticks to anecdotes of the “remember how cold it was that day” variety rather than insights into the film. The 13 deleted scenes are worth a peek but few feel like real omissions.
A featurette on the folk who made the title sequence is simply too short while a music video, some test shots, trailers and an American Airlines prank don’t quite round out a slim package that would have benefited from actor input. Especially from Clooney, who remains the real victor of the film. But a fantastic star vehicle and a fantastic film are not the same thing. Despite the plaudits, Reitman remains a little premium economy. Comfortably good, but not yet first class.
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