[Screen It]

"UP IN THE AIR"
(2009) (George Clooney, Anna Kendrick) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: A man hired by other companies to fire their employees shows his young coworker the ropes of the business, all while carrying on a casual fling with a fellow traveler and coming to realize that his non-committal lifestyle might not be as ideal as he believes.
PLOT:
Ryan Bingham (GEORGE CLOONEY) is a man who's hired by other companies to fire their employees when he's not delivering motivational presentations about the pitfalls of being weighed down by literal and metaphorical distractions. He's quite good at what he does, and actually seems to enjoy being on the road for nearly the entire year. That's especially true since that gives him all sorts of perks that will only increase now that he's soon going to join an elite and small group of people who've racked up ten million frequent flier miles.

A committed bachelor who views airports, planes and hotels as his "home" and hasn't kept in touch with his sisters, Kara (AMY MORTON) and Julie (MELANIE LYNSKEY), he also likes being able to hook up with fellow work travelers such as Alex Goran (VERA FARMIGA) who, like him, isn't looking for anything more than a good time at a nice hotel when their paths cross somewhere across the country.

Accordingly, he isn't pleased when young upstart Natalie Keener (ANNA KENDRICK) convinces their boss, Craig Gregory (JASON BATEMAN), that their company could be more efficient and cost-effective if they'd fire others' employees virtually rather than in person. Realizing his lifestyle and accumulation of travel miles is now at risk, Ryan proves that such termination requires a direct, personal touch. But that backfires on him when Craig orders that Ryan have Natalie accompany him across the country to learn how that's done in person.

As Ryan begrudgingly shows her the ropes, he also finds his belief system challenged, not only by Julie's pending marriage to Jim Miller (DANNY McBRIDE), but also due to the fact that he's starting to fall for Alex.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
When it comes to travel, some people enjoy the trip and others endure that as a necessary evil that's required to get them to their destination. And those on vacation are more apt to enjoy the trials and tribulations of the journey, whereas those traveling for work simply put up with everything associated with that, even if they're quite accustomed to dealing with airport security, car rentals, hotels and such.

Ryan Bingham is a constant traveler who, oddly enough, not only is quite good at the overall travel for work arrangement, but also seems to enjoy being away all of the time. Hired by companies that outsource the firing of their employees, he's proud that he's racked up nearly ten million frequent flier miles -- a feat less accomplished than those who've been to the moon -- while delivering bad vocational news to strangers.

He's the protagonist in the terrific and timely dramedy, "Up in the Air," and is brilliantly embodied by George Clooney who powerfully makes the role his own, but seemingly does so without breaking a sweat. It's arguably the actor's finest work to date and should have him on the nominee list of many an awards show where he'll likely be joined by writer/director Jason Reitman, co-stars Vera Farmiga and/or Anna Kendrick and a number of others behind the scenes. Simply put, the film is one of the year's best.

Adapting Walter Kim's 2001 novel of the same name with co-scribe Sheldon Turner, Reitman -- who keeps progressively upping the filmmaker ante with "Thank You For Smoking," "Juno" and now this -- delivers a crowd pleaser that works on several levels. For starters, it's an understated satire about the corporate world, cost-cutting procedures, and the effect of that on employees (played here both by actors, such as J.K. Simmons, as well as real-life people who've lost their jobs).

Accordingly, it's also quite the timely piece, what with unemployment in the U.S. now around the ten percent mark. Granted, that might make viewers in that employment quandary not terribly excited to see such a close-to-home story, and I'm guessing the studio's marketing plan might not exactly play up that part of the tale. Even so, the somewhat wicked indictment regarding all of that might also be cathartic for such folks.

What the story is really all about, however, is communication and dealing with others. Some of that involves that very issue of companies being so impersonal that they hire outsiders to fire their own people. The film takes that even a step further when a new company strategist (Kendrick) proposes that the outsourced axing occur virtually rather than in person, thus making it more efficient and cost-effective.

Ironically, that would turn the likes of Ryan into corporate dinosaurs, and he's none too happy about the development or that his boss (a decent but somewhat underused Jason Bateman) has ordered him to travel around the country and show the young upstart how it's done face-to-face in order to make the virtual breakup easier for all involved. The filmmakers smartly and deftly mix such drama with delicious bits of comedy that make all of that go down in a completely satisfying fashion.

The other side of the communication motif, and the part that ends up giving the flick a substantial amount of heart, is that the protagonist uses all of his traveling to avoid domestic and/or emotional commitment with anyone. And if that's not enough, he even moonlights as a motivational speaker where he extols the virtues of traveling light through one's personal life (saying that relationships are the heaviest components that unnecessarily weigh one down).

As such tales would have it, however, he ends up meeting someone (Farmiga playing a fellow traveler similarly not looking for anything beyond the occasional hotel rendezvous wherever their paths may cross) who makes him reassess his lifestyle and mindset. Some viewers and/or critics might complain that this second half development (along with scenes revolving around the two of them traveling to his sister's wedding and reconnecting with his siblings) weakens both his fun character and the overall satire.

I'm guessing many, though, will find all of that adds some nice poignancy to the proceeding and helps further address the overriding thematic elements. Plus, it doesn't end in a conventional sort of way, thus thankfully avoiding the sort of faux and forced sentimentality that often bedevils films like this that start off strong but then devolve into the usual and traditional sort of happily ever after pabulum.

Instead, this one plays out smart throughout, growing just like its protagonist into something a bit deeper and more insightful. Tech credits (including my pick for best song of the year, Sad Brad Smith's "Help Yourself") are solid across the board, and the performances by and chemistry between the leads is absolutely delightful and come off as effortless as might just be possible.

One of the best offerings of 2009 and clearly one of my favorites, one should book a flight with "Up in the Air" as soon as possible and then enjoy both the journey and the intellectual and emotional destination to which it will take you. The film rates as an 8 out of 10.




Reviewed October 29, 2009 / Posted December 4, 2009


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