Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Films: Up in the Air

Last weekend, I finally got to see Up in the Air, the new movie by Jason Reitman, director of "Juno" and "Thank You for Smoking." It stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a man who flies from city to city firing people. He spends the vast majority of every year in transit, working toward his ultimate goal: 10 million frequent flier miles. When his company decides to switch to an online-only firing system developed by a new employee, he decides to show her how he does his job, and why her system doesn't work. Along the way, he falls for another traveler and goes to his sister's wedding.

The timing of this movie, released in the middle of a horrible recession and double-digit unemployment, has gotten a lot of attention. Reviews have talked about how it takes a lot of nerve (in a good way) to release a movie about a moment that is still occurring, and I have to say I agree. When the vast majority of new releases are escapist, whether it's onto another planet or into a light romantic comedy, this is a movie that instead tells a story that is contemporary, rooted to right now. It's a different angle on the situation, though, and it's a challenge to make an unsympathetic figure like a layoff specialist into a likable protagonist. Of course, having Clooney never hurts. The man brings acting with his eyebrows to previously unimaginable levels.

It's also really interesting to see Reitman come into his own as a director. There are already habits that he has in his films that mark them as his own--the opening credit sequences in all three of his movies are excellent, and the way he divides to movies into chapters (in "Juno" it was seasons, in "Up in the Air," cities and their airports. He also uses a lot of excellent character actors (Simmons and Jason Bateman) to great effect. I would be interested to see if he could write a character for Bateman where he's not a terrible guy. I think they could pull it off. I've started to think there are two kinds of directors, the ones who are technically brilliant (Orson Welles) and the ones that get the best performances out of actors (Mike Nichols). There are some that are clearly both, like Scorcese, but for the most part I'd say there is a division. I started thinking about where Reitman falls, and I think it's the Nichols school: I didn't come out of the theater dazzled by technical achievement, but instead by the acting, from the lead characters and even from the supporting cast. Even Danny McBride, who has made his career so far in being insane and over the top, had a really restrained performance, and it was clear that he had thought a lot about what made his character work, how not to make him a caricature.

One of the most affecting parts of the movie was the use of non-actors in some of the firing sequences, as well as in the beginning and ending of the film--the director apparently placed ads where they were filming, asking recently laid-off people to talk about their experience on camera. The anger and frustration they captured was more interesting, and more compelling, than anything they could have accomplished using only actors. I was thinking about this after I left the movie theater, and I started wondering if this was the case because the stakes were higher for non-actors. There were actors as well, including Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons, but for the people who were answering the ad, this wasn't just another day of work, but a chance to tell their stories, to be heard.

I definitely understand all of the buzz around this movie--it would be great to see it win the Oscar because of its relevance, its timeliness, but most of all, because it's a really good movie. It got me thinking about character arcs, about dramatic structure. It's not about redemption, I don't think (a character can't be redeemed unless they realize they've fallen), but it is about characters changing. The ending leaves a lot up to interpretation regarding Clooney's character, but I think the rest of the movie builds up to the moment and lets you decide his path.

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