Film discussion

Up in the Air (2010) – Throwback 10

Although the son of one of the most mainstream comedy directors in Hollywood, Jason Reitman had proven himself to be a filmmaker of a very different style compared to his father, Ivan. While Ivan Reitman had given the world the likes of Ghostbusters, Twins and the underrated Dave, Jason’s films had a more indie spirit to them.

After making waves with Thank You for Smoking, Reitman’s second film was Juno. With its wonderful central performance from Ellen Page and superb screenplay by Diablo Cody, Juno was a coming together of many differing talents, putting Cody on the map while also proving that Reitman was no fluke as a director (although one could argue that it showed that even with talent, nepotism was still a deciding factor in launching careers in Hollywood).

For his third film, Reitman would turn to an adaptation of Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel Up in the Air. With it would come one of George Clooney’s best performances, and one that would be a major factor in cementing Anna Kendrick as a major star, while giving Vera Farmiga a role that would earn her an Academy Award nomination.

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With its male lead character and one who wears a suit throughout, it initially seemed as if Reitman was returning to a realm similar to that of Thank You for Smoking, and there is a degree of cynicism that runs through Up in the Air, particularly in the first act. In some respects the first third of the film is very much George Clooney personified in filmmaking and editing; it’s slick, well put together and dazzling.

But that it isn’t enough to hang together an entire film, unless you’re Steven Soderbergh directing one of the Clooney-starring Ocean’s series, and the film ends up having more in common emotionally with Juno the longer it goes on, with Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, going through an emotional arc that culminates with a devastatingly poignant ending.

Initially the character of Bingham is hard to sympathise with. This is, after all, a man who makes his living firing people, working for a company that is employed by other corporations who hire Bingham and people like him to do the laying off when their own bosses are too afraid to do it; something encapsulated in a darkly humorously manner at the beginning of the film through a cameo appearance by Zack Galifianakis.

It’s an interesting and daring type of character to centre a film on, especially one that was released at the tail end of 2009 (the film wouldn’t make it to UK shores until January 2010). Although Reitman claimed to have to start work on the screenplay in 2002, he ended up working on his other films first, and by the time Up in the Air began production, America and other parts of the world were deep in an economic recession. Although powerful enough on their own, this gives some of the sequences of Ryan and his eventual protege Natalie (Kendrick) an extra charge; viewing them under the time they were taking part in gave them a potency that was devastating, not least when there is such superb acting work from JK Simmons and Tamala Jones.

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That charged air hangs over Up in the Air, and it proved to be a film that was capable of pulling the rug out from under the audience. What begins as if it’s going to be a slick, Clooney-starring drama turns into something more emotional: the sadness in the air of some of those scenes where Bingham is firing employees falling into the main part of the story, not least when Ryan finally makes it to his sister’s wedding towards the end and we see that for all his slick stylings, abundance of air miles and living large, he is a person who really has very little to offer outside of his own sense of privilege and prestige.

Ryan, Natalie, and Farmiga’s character Alex are fun to watch, (although the film does fall into the trap of filtering everything the female characters do through the character of Bingham, which might prove a tad wearisome for anyone discovering the film today), eventually giving way to moments of brilliantly portrayed emotional angst.

Natalie begins like a typical Kendrick character, but her strict, regimental way of viewing the world soon dives into one of disappointment and bitterness as she sees how the real world works (although there is a hint of a happy ending for her), while the romantic comedic plotline involving Ryan and Alex gives way to a twist that feels like someone has stuck a knife in your back.

There was really no going back for airport dashes after this.

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