The Christmas-to-New-Year's period is my one big movie-going stretch of the year these days, so two days after hitting the local multiplex for "Avatar," I was back to see George Clooney in "Up in the Air,", which I thoroughly enjoyed even as I had to keep reminding myself that the movie wasn't called "The Air Up There." A spoiler-laced review (designed, like my TV reviews, to be read after you've watched the thing) coming up just as soon as I throw out a pillow...
"Up in the Air" works on a lot of levels at once. You can simply enjoy it as George Clooney's most unapologetically dashing, romantic leading man performance since "Ocean's Eleven," or maybe even "Out of Sight." He's been great in other movies, but often in roles that feel designed for him to run away from his own innate charms. (He did, after all, win his Oscar for "Syriana," a movie where he packed on weight, grew a beard, and got tortured.) Clooney has become a great actor - and the scene on the airport shuttle where he takes the call from Vera Farmiga may be the best-acted of his career - yet there's something tremendously appealing about just seeing Clooney be Clooney... at least until those later scenes in which Clooney sees the folly of this.
Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are also terrific, and the sequence where the older duo console a heartbroken Kendrick and then invite her to crash the party (complete with a cameo by a not-so-Young MC) was as purely fun a 15 minutes as I've had at the movies in a long time.
But "Up in the Air" isn't just the story of a dashing road warrior. It's a blunt and poignant look at getting downsized in the worst job market in decades. Jason Reitman's idea to cast real people who had been recently fired to talk about their experience was a nice touch. Even better were Clooney and Kendrick's scripted interactions with J.K. Simmons and Jeff Eastin (as the devastated guy in Detroit), the former illustrating Clooney's belief that his job can be about more than just letting people down easy, the latter illustrating just how brutal this profession really is, particularly at a time like this when jobs are scarce.
And, of course, the second half of the movie also beautifully shows how Clooney's personal philosophy is just as much a delusion as his professional one. His life is fun, but empty, and the 1-2-3 punch of spending time on the road with Kendrick (who's far more human and empathetic than her tele-firing plan would suggest), falling for Farmiga and going to his sister's wedding (where Danny McBride showed how easily he can dial his usual schtick into more realistic, dramatic levels) forces him to realize that he does, in fact, need other people in his backpack.
And what makes the movie feel particularly resonant, I think, is that Clooney figuring this out doesn't solve anything for him, any more than his platitudes really help most of the people he fires move on in the job market. Had the movie followed a more predictable arc - had the "When Harry Met Sally" moment where Clooney goes running to tell Farmiga that he loves her worked out(*) - it would have made everything that came before feel phony. Instead, Clooney ends the movie in the exact same physical space as he began it, even as his emotional life has been ripped apart.
(*) Fienberg (who didn't love the movie in general) complained that he figured out that Farmiga's character had a family early on, and therefore grew impatient waiting for Clooney to find out. I have to admit that I didn't catch on until right when he showed up at her doorstep - again, I feared that Reitman was going the cliched rom-cm route when Clooney bailed on his big motivational speech - and was floored when I realized what was up. But I can see how spotting the twist early (like the people who somehow figured out Donnie Wahlberg killed Bruce Willis) could make some sections of the movie drag.
I don't get to the movies a lot anymore, and I haven't seen a lot of the movies that are considered serious Oscar contenders. But of the films I got to in 2009, "Up in the Air" is easily in the top 3 with "Up" and "The Hurt Locker."
What did everybody else think?