Thursday, March 11, 2010

Up in the Air (2009)

Girls are not to be trusted.

So begins my belated Oscar viewing extravaganza for 2009. Most of the nominated films held off DVD release until after the awards, so it was especially difficult to get a hold of the movies in Korea until now. There wasn't any particular reason Up in the Air was first on my list, but it was certainly one of the more enticing films. I'm a sucker for the underrated Indie comedy that doesn't win, examples include Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine, and Up in the Air fit that bill and I was not disappointed by my decision to watch the movie. Up in the Air is a really well constructed film with interesting characters, top-notch writing and great performances.

In a twist stolen from Office Space, companies hire out the duty of laying off employees to professional employment terminators. These terminators, robots sent from the future to disintegrate your job, travel all through time, wracking up insane frequent flyer miles and screwing beautiful she-terminators all along the way. We follow Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, as he copes with his terminator identity in the face of new technology. Think of it as Terminator 2 except the new technology doesn't have liquid metal swords for arms this time. The movie features a lot of fantastic comedic cameos, J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis sticking out in particular, and an excellent supporting cast featuring Jason Bateman and some people I had never heard of. The film garnered a solid amount of Academy Award nominations, almost netting one in every major category, but it came away empty handed. The film was received warmly by critics and movie goers, but it just failed to impress the right people in the end.

There are a lot of reasons to see Up in the Air, but the biggest is probably a combination of the script and George Clooney's handsome mug. The script is top notch and it only falters a little in the pacing and character development department. It's funny, interesting and, at times, quite profound. The film toys with you quite a bit, setting everything up as a romantic comedy with a clear happy ending and then it kicks you in the head. It's been a long time since a plot twist hit me this hard. I won't spoil the twist for you, but I can say, without a doubt, that the movie is substantially better because of how it turns towards the end. All of the actors in Up in the Air do great work, three of them were nominated for Academy Awards after all, but Clooney steals the show. I've never been a big fan of Clooney as an actor, I like his directorial work a lot better, but he is genuinely impressive here. The film was clearly written with him in mind and he makes the best of the opportunity. The performances are backed up by some really interesting, complex characters. This is a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because the characters in the film feel like real, complicated human beings and it's a curse because sometimes the characters history is unclear or blurred. This is also true of the events in the story. I was really happy with how much ambiguity was left for the audience to digest. Life isn't simple or clear cut and the movie did a great job of ending things without finishing them. Up in the Air is impressive in a lot of ways, but it makes some questionable decisions as well.

Up in the Air stumbles in a few key places and that prevented it from completely knocking my socks off. While the twist was effective, I had to endure more than an hour of fairly cliche film making before I got there. The humor is good enough to keep the film enjoyable through these segments, but it all seems so predictable for most of the movies run time. I mentioned before that there are also some issues with characters. I've always been a proponent of showing what a character is like, not telling. One of the basic principles of writing is that actions speak louder than words, but, at some point, you need to explain why characters act the way they do. I didn't find any satisfactory starting point for Clooney's character. There were some clues, but we learn nothing of why he ditches his family, friends and normal life for a life on the road. Why does he fire people for a living? Is the only reason for the job the side perks? The movie is too long for us not to learn some of these details. The only other major issue I had was with the strangely edited firing sequences. Most of those were real people who had been laid off, but I found them strangely not compelling. The last segment of the people talking about their families should have been the most profound, but I found it awkward and uninteresting. This contributed to one of the movies other major issues, which is pacing. Things move nicely at times, but then the movie gets bogged down. The ending of the movie is especially slow. All of these issues are minor compared to the things that the movie does right, but they seem to stick out clearly in my viewing.

In the newly expanded Best Picture race, Up in the Air picked up an obvious nomination in the indie comedy spot. Even if only five movies had been nominated, the film probably still would have snagged a nod. While it's not Sideways or Little Miss Sunshine, Up in the Air is a extremely solid movie and another example of why Jason Reitman is a director that deserves to be followed. Up in the Air is worth seeing solely on the basis of it's great dialog and it's twist, but there is, thankfully, a lot more to it than that. In a year that seemed dominated by war movies, space war and regular war, Up in the Air is a nice change of pace.


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