Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a corporate big shot who gets hired by businesses to come in and clean house. He fires dozens of people a day, knowing no more about them than what’s listed on their dated resumes. His life, you see, is consumed by travel. His home is the air. Soon enough his sleazy boss (a great Jason Bateman) brings in fresh, hot-shit college grad Natalie (Anna Kendrick) to go along with Ryan. They travel throughout the country, firing people left and right, before Ryan meets his female doppelganger Alex (a sultry Vera Farmiga).
There’s your basic premise, but this is by no means a plot. There is no agenda in the film, no three-act structure. It’s just… there. Which, I’m sure, may seem a little off-putting to some of you. But in fact, Up in the Air is a very hard film to critique because there is nothing, from what I can tell, wrong with it.
Ten years ago George Clooney proved his dramatic acting chops with his revelatory turn in Three Kings. In the decade since, he has done his damndest to shy away from his immense stardom, delivering solid work in the Ocean’s films, Solaris, Michael Clayton, and winning an Oscar for Syriana. But as Ryan Bingham, Clooney has never been better. From the first time you see him (or hear is witty narration) you can’t take your eyes off him. His slight gestures, his borderline-sarcastic firing, his delicate holding of a much needed drink; it’s all there. Everyone he fires reacts differently; some mad, angry, calm, crying, etc. Most of them start off hating him, but watch Clooney carefully in these scenes. Watch how, for instance, one recently fired person (the always reliable J.K. Simmons) slowly grows to respect Ryan in just five short minutes. It’s really quite incredible.
Kendrick (who a billion people have seen in the Twilight films) is a welcoming revelation. Conservatively dressed in tight business attire, she plays Natalie like a bewildered rookie champ. A seemingly confident deer caught in the headlights of corporate politics. As her character evolves, we get to know a great deal about her. Her insecurities, flunky mannerisms, and so on. She’ll have a seat next to Mo’Nique come Oscar night.
I’ve been a fan of Farmiga’s since her breakout role in the little-seen Down to the Bone. Most of you know her as the lone female in The Departed, but it is her role here that really lets her shine. Her Alex is a thing of pure confidence; with sexuality, with business, hell, with life in general. Clooney has had plenty of female counterparts over the years. Jennifer Lopez, Holly Hunter, Julia Roberts, and so on. But Farmiga is easily his best match yet. Their relationship develops like some kind of cosmic force. Their chemistry brings to mind the great romances of classic cinema. They’re that good.
This is Jason Reitman’s third film after the sardonic Thank You for Smoking, and the gimmicky Juno. All I can say is… third time’s the charm. Reitman, along with co-writer Sheldon Turner, have adapted Walter Kirn’s novel into something of a film miracle. There isn’t a forced moment, or spoken line of overacted dialogue to be found here. Mr. Reitman, and his film, are going to have a very, very busy awards season.
In my previous post, I was all the rage about Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Nelson Mandela. And while I still commend Freeman in that role, I cannot image better male acting than Clooney this year. Take this brief scene for example. Early in the film we learn that Ryan’s younger sister is getting married. He hesitantly decides to go home and attend. Watch when Clooney walks into the rehearsal dinner. His sister sees him, then gets up from the table and starts rushing towards him for a hug. Now pay attention. Watch Clooney as his sister approaches. A gushing smile bursts from his face. He is genuinely ecstatic to see her. All of his ideals, his lonely philosophies, are lost with that smile. It quite literally took my breath away. Blink and you’ll miss it, but that is acting. Making the audience believe. Up in the Air is without a doubt, one of the best Hollywood movies to come out in years. Enjoy the trip. A+