First things first: Does Jason Reitman's Up in the Air deserve the Best Picture Oscar it seems to be barreling towards? Nope. But is it a really good movie anyway? Yep. It's a dramedy (hate that word if you must, but it's so useful) where George Clooney plays a suave, cool bachelor who I think has a character name but who might as well just be called George Clooney and who gets paid to fly around the country firing people whose bosses lack the balls to do it themselves. Despite the recession — indeed, probably because of it — his business is booming, and he happily stays more detached from human contact than ever as he jetsets from city to city. But when he falls in love with a businesswoman named Alex he meets in an airport and is assigned a young professional named Natalie to mentor, he gradually learns the joy of human connection and becomes a better person.
Or does he?
It's tough to explain free from spoilers why I came out of Up in the Air liking it so much (and while I'll avoid specifics you might as well stop reading here if you haven't seen the movie and don't want to know anything at all), so I'll just say that as someone who has nothing but disdain for humanity this movie had me thinking "this is well-made and all, but way too uplifting and feel-goody," until right near the end when it pulls the rug out from under all that in a sort of brilliant way and very suddenly makes the black and white "George Clooney discovers FRIENDSHIP! :-)" storyline into something considerably more gray and interesting. Oh yes, I dug it.
Pacing issues alone hold it back from being one of my top ten of 2009. Among those not gushing with love for the film there seem to be two nearly opposite schools of contention; some preferred the topical firing people storyline and found George Clooney's arc a little generic, while others wanted more time with the characters and thought the firing story (particularly when we get The Office-style asides with people lamenting their unemployment) bordered on preachy. I'm with the first crowd. I was pretty fascinated with Clooney's bizarre job but a third-act vignette where he attends his sister's wedding gums up the momentum pretty bad and tried my patience in a way not at all unlike Adam Sandler's visit to his ex-girlfriend's house in last summer's Funny People. Up in the Air already clocks in at a relatively brisk 109 minutes but I bet some judicious editing could make it 95 minutes and a better film.
Interestingly, George Clooney's performance stands in the shadow of the young and relatively unknown Anna Kendrick as his protégé Natalie (every other performance is quickly forgotten). It's not that I don't like Clooney — he's perfect in Ocean's Eleven — it's just that his personality is so large and distinct that his performances are ultimately very predictable. Sometimes he's a little sillier, sometimes a little more serious, sometimes a little cooler, but he never disappears into the character. You never see anything except Clooney, ever, which kind of harms a movie that's half character study. Kendrick on the other hand brings a strange dichotomy to Natalie, making her simultaneously ultra-professional and nearly robotic as she goes about her business while remaining by far the most emotionally unguarded character in the film, wearing her fears and foibles on her sleeve in a really winning way. She deserves to and will be nominated for Best Supporting Actress and it's kind of hilarious that thanks to the magic of contracts she'll have to go from that back to her shitty supporting role as Bella's ditzy friend in the Twilight movies.
Between Kendrick, creative direction married to snappy editing, a topical and interesting storyline, and plenty of chuckle-worthy lines and moments, I ultimately give the film a solid recommendation despite some blemishes. It won't lose anything in the transition to home video and if you lack the inclination to drive out you'll be just fine with the DVD, but definitely get around to it.
3 Stars out of 5