Dec 312009

Just came home from seeing the new Jason Reitman film, Up in the Air. Naturally, I am now compelled to talk about it, and even more naturally huge spoilers after the jump.First let me just say, this is a brilliant movie. It’s easy to say Clooney was made for the part of Ryan because Reitman wrote the part for him, but still, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. He just radiates that trademark, easy charm, and makes you side with a guy is really very hard to like. There’s a moment at the very end of the film, when he learns that a person let go by he and Natalie committed suicide. He claims he doesn’t remember anyone who showed any outward signs, that he doesn’t even remember the people who he fired. Initially I thought he was covering for Natalie, but the more I thought about it the more unconvinced of that fact I became, and that he truly did not remember that particular woman. He says he never remembers the people he fires, and in that I believe him. That was the genius of Clooney’s performance, he made you care about this isolated, cold man who seemingly has everything figured out.

One of the elements that takes the movie from the fairly standard cliche and makes it special is the character of Alex. For the majority of the film Vera Farminga’s Alex is exactly how she initially described herself to Clooney, “You with a vagina.” But the big twist in the third act — after the predictable moment of self-realization Ryan undergoes while delivering his self-help speech — is that she’s really not. Instead, she was just playing pretend, and she really does have all the baggage that “normal” people have, including a family. Up to this point in the film the viewer is like Clooney, they have everything figured out, in some way shape or form, he and Alex are going to have a relationship that grows, maybe not marriage, but something beyond a quick fling in a Hilton. And that never happens, because the whole time Farminga’s character was never who we thought she was. There was a time when a reversal like that would have me furious, and in all honesty I am to a degree. I like the happy ending, and the two characters had this tremendous vibe, and Reitman pulls the rug out from under you. In a way it’s cheap, but it also shows just how desperate Clooney’s character is to make a real connection that he invests so much into a person he does not really know. I’ll admit, I felt as betrayed by her and Clooney did, and that is a mark of a spectacular performance.

In other ways the film never quite moves in the directions you expect it. The contradictory message it portrayed. On the one hand you have the typical “family is good, being alone is hollow” message that countless films before it have espoused. On the other hand, when Ryan does reach out and tries to make a connection, it blows up in his face. Despite what all the earnest real people are saying at the end of the film, the only loyalty in Ryan’s life is from his airline. Also, the way his relationship with the young colleague, Natalie unfolds runs somewhat against type. The entire scenario played out very similarly to another favorite movie of mine, In Good Company. Like that stellar film, the resolution to the corporate drama is arrived at, not through the actions of the characters, but the capriciousness of corporate bureaucracy. There are also some similarities between Anna Kendrick’s Natalie and Topher Grace’s Carter Duryea– though that’s about the extent of the parallels.

In the end, Up In the Air is an excellent film. It does the one thing I always ask of true literature, make me think. In a way I liked the movie better before the ending — I’d rather remember the sexy, warm Alex from the beginning of the movie instead of the duplicitous one from the end for instance — but it’s that unsettled ending that makes the film work. Some movies I like because they are disposable entertainment, Avatar being a prime example. Up in the Air, in contrast, is a movie that stays with you, and because of that I can safely say it is one of the best movies I have seen in a long time.

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