Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Way, Way Up There

Out of the clear blue sky comes Up in the Air, a film of glorious humor, shattering heartbreak, and extraordinary profundity. The film takes the form of a swinging Cary Grant rom-com from the 1950s, then twists its basic construction into a powerful statement about human connection, then twists it again into a tale of isolation in a harsh, frightening world. We live in a world that has evolved (more appropriately, devolved) into a culture of thoroughly knowledgeable shut-ins. For some, their only connection to the world around them is through their business colleagues, or their snarky bosses...or their iPhones. We suddenly have the ability to become universally connected to the whole world without ever actually communicating with anyone. We don't even have to leave home -- we don't even need to have a home, strictly speaking, to stay connected in this technological age. And yet this is a time of great hardship for many, a time of inner fear and professional paranoia. Our economy has given birth to unfathomable innovations, and then that economy has imploded, leaving us in a state of perpetual fear of the system that seemed to usher in such a brave new world. Never has a film so presciently tapped into the immediate anxieties of the current culture...until now. Up in the Air is the defining film of its generation.

Ryan Bingham fires people for a living. He is a "corporate downsizer," the guy sent by his massive corporation to handle the dirty job of eliminating personnel by engaging his subjects with a cool, smooth, gentle charm. George Clooney, reigning King of Cinematic Suave, plays Ryan with full knowledge that this character is the psychic extension of the actor's own real-life least the one perpetuated by the media. Here is a gorgeous single man who travels the world with plenty of casual smiles and momentary flings but no long-lasting connections. He loves his free-wheeling lifestyle and has no need or desire for permanent intimacy. Up in the Air's purpose is to systematically dissect this man to discover how and why he reached such a cold, distant satisfaction, and Clooney, at the center of the picture and in nearly every scene, shows a daring courage to tackle this role that seemed destined to be filled by the Oscar-winner. It is his most extraordinary performance.

Time and again, Ryan must deliver what, in this dreary economic climate, is likely the worst news his subjects could hear: that their services are no longer needed, that their paychecks will no longer be deposited into their bank accounts. This charming demolition is Ryan's business, and as a result, he is himself a rootless journeyman, a man with plenty of financial security but no real home, a man who interacts with many but connects with very few. To hear the character speak, it seems like a godsend. "I'm not isolated, I'm surrounded," he says, in a soundbite played in nearly all of the film's ads, and we see what kind of character he is: the rogue charmer who thinks he lives by the ideal secret code.

In a 50s-era Cary Grant picture, the secret code would be the bottom line, the hook that connects us through the entire film. In the 80s and into the 90s, Ryan would hit a roadblock and be forced to choose between his bittersweet satisfaction and true happiness with the love of his life. In Up in the Air, the terrain is far rockier, and in the year's most powerfully nuanced screenplay, a new watermark has been set for human complexity in the movies. The script, based on Walter Kirn's 2001 novel and written for the screen by Sheldon Turner and the film's director, Jason Reitman, presents Ryan with two unique challenges. Both, perhaps unsurprisingly, are women. The first is Natalie (Anna Kendrick), the new spitfire pixie who has recently taken Ryan's company by storm. Natalie is a go-getter who has devised a new, more efficient way of firing people involving web-cams and cold scripting -- a method which, in essence, eliminates the need for a guy like Ryan. The second challenge is Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow professional traveler whom Ryan meets in one city, and then another, and then another, until they find themselves in a kind-of, sort-of relationship.

Natalie has devised a cold system but is not a cold person. Alex has formed the same kind of icy detachment Ryan has. In Natalie Ryan sees a "younger model" threatening to eliminate his job, and by extension, his life. In Alex he sees a kindred spirit, a person who might make life away from the rush of airport terminals and the comfortable disconnectedness of constant travel seem like a life worth pursuing. How these characters connect and interact, how each of their uniquely rich personalities naturally bounce off of and influence one another, is breathtaking. Of each character's individual path I should not reveal anything, other than to say the film builds our expectations, pays them off, and then pulls the rug right out from under us just when we settle in. The awakening is not a rude one, however, but a refreshing startle that allows us to rethink the entire film and each of its characters.

Reitman directs Up in the Air with the natural style and inimitable confidence of an industry giant who knows exactly what he wants and knows precisely how to achieve it. His command of the script, the frame, and all the life that jumps from the script into the frame, is remarkable. The film's opening sequence is a vivid orchestra of energetic images set to Rolfe Kent's luminous nervous-tick of a score (reminiscent of Jon Brion's work in Punch-Drunk Love) as we see Ryan's life in one feverish montage of potent close-ups and whirling camerawork. And then the camera gets intimate and the script reaches deep, achieving some of the most indelible character moments of any film this year. The tender and true emotional power these characters reach combined with the images Reitman captures sends the young filmmaker skyrocketing to the top tier of American directors. He has now delivered two consecutive masterworks (Juno was the first), and in this one he pulls out the big guns, tackling not merely the intricacies of the human spirit but the relevance of contemporary American anxieties.

Up in the Air is a piece of cinema that taps almost psychically into the struggles and fears of current American culture. Ryan is the representation of isolated America. We have embraced this Brave New World to the detriment of our socialization. Times are tough so we focus more on work...and that work keeps us from what matters most, and in some cases displaces it. Ryan is rich, beautiful, and powerful, and Ryan is bankrupt, lonely, and homeless. He is a man of his generation: lost in a sea of detachment, traveling the world but experiencing nothing, searching for the flight that might take him somewhere meaningful. Maybe, one day, he will find it.

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