Monday, January 04, 2010

Monday Movie Review: Up in the Air

Up in the Air (2009) 9/10
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) travels over 300 days a year on business, and is most at home in airports and hotels. He considers his unattached life a virtue that he is teaching to Natalie (Anna Kendrick) a newcomer to his company. Directed by Jason Reitman.

It is obvious that Up in the Air is about connection. Hell, it's in the tagline (The story of a man ready to make a connection. Haha, get it?) Ryan Bingham is deeply disconnected, and doesn't see the problem with that. He has no connection to any kind of home, he is more comfortable using a suitcase than a closet, and his family relationships are as minimal as he can keep them. And surely there are dozens of movies about disconnected people finding that they need love after all, although perhaps the movies have never seen a character as committed to his disconnect as Bingham. Hell, he's a motivational speaker on the subject! Bingham isn't a creep or a cheat, he's utterly honest about who and what he is, and apparently at peace with it.

I'm drawn to a comparison with Alfie, but Michael Caine's Alfie is a scumbag and a cad from the get-go, and he lies about who and what he is as often as possible, except to the fourth wall.

At another level, Up in the Air is not just about connection but efficiency, and that has more subtlety. It's easy, even facile to say, we all need connection, even loners like Ryan Bingham. It's quite another to notice that the quest for efficiency; faster, easier, smarter, better-packaged, more-streamlined, and less-painful, is itself disconnected and leads to disconnection. Bingham's life is perfectly streamlined, his suitcase is perfectly packed, its wheels do not stick. He may be racist in choosing who to stand behind at airport security, but the fact is he gets through security quite easily. And if you've been to an airport lately, well, that's not nothing.

But can we have this efficiency and connection? Up in the Air sees a dotted line between them, as a life without friends and loved ones is obviously more streamlined, and the explicit way in which caring "weighs you down" is a motif. This is smarter and deeper than it sounds, because it is presented with wit and gentle humor, and also because we really want both; we really want our love but also to get the fuck through airport security. So Bingham is truly speaking to us in a way that, at first, we listen to.

This may well be George Clooney's finest moment. He is incredibly nuanced, and every line has layers and layers of presence and personality. There's a scene, late in the film, in which he gives a speech he's given before, and I had no doubt that it was time for A Movie Thing to happen, but I also knew that it didn't need to happen, because just the subtle shift in his tone of voice told the whole tale. It was exquisite.

At the beginning of the movie, Bingham meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a woman apparently as unfettered as himself. It's one of the film's best scenes, as they heat each other up talking about car rental upgrades and mileage rewards. She's absolutely perfect in this film as well, warm and real despite having very little character on which to hang her hat.

The whole cast is solid, the film looks just right, the script is a dream of humor and pathos and poignancy, flowing with enormous grace, and hey, did I mention Clooney? No really, Clooney's performance is everything any actor can hope for. There are no big gut-wrenching moments here, no tearing your hair out for the Academy, just subtle, deep, honest work from beginning to end.

The previews sell this film as an adorable sort of thing, but it's not The Bucket List. Up in the Air is truthful about the cost of an efficient life, and is not interested in pulling punches.

(This cross-post earns frequent flier miles)