UP IN THE AIR
109 minutes // USA // Paramount Pictures
dir. Jason Reitman
Friday, December 4th, 2009 – Cineplex Odeon Varsity
starring: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick & Vera Farmiga
Disconnection: Our post-Y2K generation in North America has fallen prey to this and it is a true modern tragedy. Whether it has been the invention of text messages that can (and often are) used to deliver messages from the most poetic to the most tragic without the added element of exuding emotion or needing not the comfort of company as we can assume a virtual life without problem, if easier than actual human interaction, throughout the last decade we have given into the allure of an easier existence, even if it requires compromising our emotional integrity. This is where Jason Reitman’s latest, Up in the Air finds its meaning. In examining the alternative to electronic relationships, but at the same time, exposing the desolation of life and often asking “What is the purpose?”.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is the definition of what most men strive to be: independent, charming, wealthy and with a sense of direction. On the other hand, the work he does allows for no place to call home apart from the sky and the hotel chain he frequents ‘on the road’. Although this aspect of the life he leads is quite opposite of what most want, he loves it and wouldn’t have it any other way. It isn’t until he meets the female equivalent of himself in Alex (Vera Farmiga) and a studious young go-getter in Natalie (Anna Kendrick) that he beings to question the routine he’s been leading for roughly 30 years now. Alex because he had never believed in an everlasting adoration for someone before and Natalie because she prompts an innovative to the boss of both she and Ryan, Craig (Jason Bateman) that jeopardizes the existence he’s accustom to.
There’s a hint of irony (both humorous and tragic) that is sprayed onto the feature because Ryan’s career has essentially been built on firing other people; a fire for hire, if you will. To have his job rendered useless by his boss and not have the ability to do what he considers an honorable and honest profession – the way Ryan handles it would make you believe it is anyhow – places him firmly in the shoes of those he has fired. Though he would get to keep the job of telling people they’re fired (over the internet via webchat) he knows that it isn’t the same and understands even more that his life would be jilted into a whole new direction. With this, Reitman creates a frail air of despondency for the film to breathe for its entirety. This is sustained contrary to the many clouts of merriment trying to knock the depressive wind out in order to swap levity in its place; making for an interesting balance of sadness and cheer that most will commend.
By making this character – a man who prefers to associate with strangers than with family – the focal point of the feature, the viewer immediately interprets this story to be one about disconnection from reality – or what commonplace society interprets as reality. So the question burns, “Why does Ryan feel the need to be disconnected from the world?” and the answer is simply “he is a man who is afraid of rejection”. So with that, you’re meant to piece this little speck of a back-story (or rather an assumption if you’re a viewer like myself) and develop it into something tangible. In fact, you’ll only understand this about Ryan if you listen deeply to the motivational speeches he gives at minor venues. but no support to this reasoning is provided to even the most attentive viewer. It is as if Reitman intentionally avoided any reasoning behind why his main character is the way he is, but in a story that spreads out onto so many different tangents, discernment into the character is necessary.
People will draw conclusions that Reitman is a man who writes his leading characters with as much depth and purpose in the world he creates as his tertiary ones (also having done so with Thank You For Smoking). Because Ryan, Alex and every other character down to Bob (JK Simmons in a heart-wrenching scene) are meant as a reflective tool for viewers to identify with, this is a film that relies albeit, too heavily on an understanding that the audience has with the fictional characters. He creates scenes with great solemn, as well as ones with undying wit which make for understanding each character and their own story easy to interpret, if in the exact same way one would interpret Ryan. This is both advantageous and detrimental in that you get a sense for everyone, but never too extreme of one that would seem the foremost priority to any other writer in regards to the main character… who is practically every scene. Points for taking the time to consider everyone, but a loss for obstructing a fundamental necessity to comprehending your film. Reitman breaks about even in this regard.
Alas not everything is as simply wonderful as this sounds. Here, the writer adds more themes to the feature while the primary one finds itself through understanding that moves at a glacial pace. Some work – the additions to the theory about our rudimentary human interactions and how they’re slipping away with each innovation in technology, for example – while others do not. The romance starts off very delicately, works diligently to make it a step from a cliche, but a step large enough to notice the honesty coursing between the lovers and then, at the end, it drops right off. As does the inquiry to what shapes us as people and our places in society.
Essentially, Reitman is a construction worker who builds and builds and builds and by the time he gets to the top of the structure he’s already forgotten what is beneath him, so he finishes it off as conveniently as he can imagine to get on with his day; applying skills he learned in first year training to gloss over his error. It’s shoddily done and with it he guts the softly ruminative element, as well as dissolves most reverence one would hold about his judgment, be it as a screenwriter or director.
All of this attributes to a variety of coincidences (none too believable) taking place of methodical pacing and an apt knowledge of the human condition – found in the first two acts – being reduced to mere blips of dialogue to assure the viewer that Reitman hasn’t lost all of his tact.
But yet, the film doesn’t really feel like its undertaken a reckless path in its final stretch. Rather, it is Reitman’s direction that keeps the film afloat when his writing begins to capsize. His simple use of music keeps the involvement at a high. Although there are one or two song choices that do not satisfy their purpose – especially the piece in the final scene that swirls a definite conclusion into yet another assumption the audience has to make – he grabs some of the softest compositions to play contrast to Ryan’s melting heart. In particular, his choice of the Elliott Smith track Angels in the Snow during a feverishly romantic montage makes for cinematic perfection.
Many directors seem to forget that visual stimulation isn’t the utmost key component to making appealing cinema. Reitman is a benefactor in the “simplicity is key” movement that more directors should follow. He doesn’t go for extravagance or style to make a point; he doesn’t make rapid, jagged cuts to assert a feeling of freight or disorientation into his films when there is no cause for such technique unless you feel your audience is too thick to get what you’re projecting; no, he’d rather allow a story to flow almost as if it were a novel and uses the visual element in a rather mundane fashion. Occasionally he imbues definite emotions into scenes – be it through something as sorrowful as watching a friend drift away from you in slow motion as you ponder the grandiose life you pursue or something a little more low-key like an interesting shift of perspective in an angle cut to shift a sense of hope to one of despair – but seldom extends his reach of reality into superficial territory. In addition, his choice to recruit recently let-go men and women in the scenes in which Ryan fires employees adds a humanistic quality that makes the despondency of the current economic climate entirely palpable. These decisions not only ease the mistakes throughout, but also place the viewer into a destitute frame of mind.
With verbose and arrogant characters, Up in the Air manages to make its viewers care for the most frustrating incarnations of people. With Clooney rattling off yet another charming rendition of the middle aged man in crisis, where he seamlessly transforms from a standoffish pomp to a wistful romantic; Kendrick’s adorable evolving from a naive go-getter to an emotionally accomplished adult in her personification of the Rice Krispies trio (because she snaps, crackles and pops); and Farmiga’s simplistic, but yet abundantly dear turn in her least showy role to date, you’ll be hard-pressed to find something about the film you don’t enjoy.
In only his third feature, Reitman has construed and enveloped what is means to live in this day and age. Despite jumbling the feature in the latter stages, Reitman has made his mark in cinematic history with what will undoubtedly be the quintessential tool for future generations to look back on in order to educate themselves about their ancestors and the trials they faces as pedestrians under pressure. By being both steadily funny and perturbed, Up in the Air is a journey you’ll never want to end.