Up in the Air

You can’t plan your feelings. Most of the time you can’t really control them, either. You can control or plan your reaction to things, but those pesky feelings arise whether or not you invite them; whether or not you want them; whether or not you acknowledge them. This is what came to mind while watching the fantastic Up in the Air, and it’s something that’s crossed my mind several times this week.

In the beginning of the week, a friend of mine was telling me about his relationship, saying that it felt like it was going somewhere good he wasn’t ready for it to go, despite his strong affection for this person. Then a couple of days ago I re-watched (500) Days of Summer (it’s now out on DVD). In the fledging era of their relationship, Summer tells Tom she doesn’t believe in love. She says she doesn’t want to be anyone’s anything. She’s just looking for something casual. The fates have different plans. Today, I watched Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) travel elite access through life, collecting nothing but frequent flier miles as his feelings told his theory to lump it.

Depending upon what you believe, you can thank Eve for all these feelings - good and bad. And depending upon your outlook on life, you can thank her sarcastically or sincerely. I’d like to sincerely thank Eve for eating that apple, getting banished from Eden and making it so human beings know emotions. Yes, some of these emotions are messy and many of them can be difficult to cope with and get through. But if we didn’t know the bad, we wouldn’t know just how good the good is. Were we to go through life numb to everything we wouldn’t be living, we’d just be going through the motions. The feelings you feel and, as Ryan learns, the things other than frequent flier miles that you collect, are what make your life.

I won’t go through the various plot points because I think the take-offs and landings Up in the Air makes along the way are best experienced without preconceived notions. I will go through and gush about the great direction and acting.

Jason Reitman has scored a hat trick with this, his third film as a director. (His debut was the deliciously sardonic satire Thank You For Smoking and his follow up was Juno.) He wrote both Smoking and Up in the Air and his sensitive skepticism shows through in each. As a director, he has a quick, slick style which works wonderfully in this movie. He’s clued in enough to the characters, though, to slow it down and linger on moments when it’s necessary. He’s three for three and I’m excited to see what he does next.

Reitman also keeps around some of the same bit players, who always seems to turn in great supporting performances. J.K. Simmons has been in all three of Reitman’s movies; usually he’s very funny - the punch line guy - but here he’s affecting as one of the people Ryan has to fire. Jason Bateman, who was in Juno, is also along for the trip here. Bateman has smarmy down to a science (watch Arrested Development - he pretty much writes the book on smarmy) and he brings it here but he’s also sincere and charming when it’s called for.

A Reitman neophyte is theatre vet Amy Morton, who shows up as one of Ryan’s sisters. Morton was Tony nominated for her performance in August: Osage County (she lost to her on stage mother, Deanna Dunagan - who was a force to be reckoned with) and rightly so. In August, as the eldest of three sisters dealing with a pill-popping domineering mother, Morton’s character had to hold the house together. She plays the same kind of sister here, too, though in a totally different setting. Her character in Up in the Air isn’t nearly as dramatic as her role in August, and Morton, who is a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, gives a touching and understated performance.

As for the two women flying in and out of Ryan’s life: Anna Kendrick is great as his tightly wound young gunner. Fresh out of college and with something to prove, Kendrick plays Ryan’s colleague Natalie to type-A perfection. As Alex, Ryan’s love interest, Vera Farmiga once again proves she can go toe-to-toe with today’s best leading men. Farmiga was terrific playing opposite both Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in the best picture of 2006, The Departed, and she doesn’t disappoint here. She matches wits and charm with George Clooney’s Ryan and he and we see her as the real, strong, capable woman she is - never once falling into damsel in distress or crazy-needy-girl territory for a moment. Alex is a grown woman and as portrayed by Farmiga, she acts like it.

And now the brilliant George Clooney. Oh, George, what is there to say? Yes, just about every woman on the planet wants to be with him and yes, some would argue that the bachelor life he leads is similar to Ryan’s, but Clooney is really a gifted actor so it’s a treat to watch him slip into character and forget that you’re watching a movie star. You’re watching Ryan Bingham, and everything he’s feeling appears on his face. Maybe it’s just a wry smile or a flash of something behind his eyes, but everything about Ryan that wasn’t written in the script is expertly conveyed by Clooney. Sometimes with these big stars, especially the ridiculously handsome ones like Clooney, it’s difficult to remember that they are actors first. Luckily, every once in a while a movie like Up in the Air comes along, giving Clooney a chance to remind us.

I’d also like to urge you to stay through the end credits when you see this. The song at the end was written by one of the jobless people Reitman met with while researching the film and it makes you realize what a great title Up in the Air really is.