There’s a lot of film bloggers out there who have a natural aversion to anything that Jason Reitman is associated with.
And listen, I understand. The fact of the matter is that Jason Reitman probably does owe a lot of his success to the fact that people in the industry know and like his father. And it’s also true that Jason Reitman does tend to specializes in making films that you’re either going to love or you’re going to hate. His films mix drama and comedy and sentiment and snark and sometimes, his refusal to come down firmly on the side of either one can feel like a bit of a cop out. There’s a quirkiness to many of his films and sometimes, it can come across as being a bit cutesy. And I’ll even go as far as to agree with those who say that it’s been a while since Reitman’s made a really good film. The most common complaint I hear about Reitman is that his first four films (Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up In The Air, and Young Adult) were okay and then he let his good reviews go to his head. Of course, some people — okay, a lot of people — will tell you that, of those four films, Juno’s overrated.
I get all of that and I actually agree with some of those points. Reitman is a director who sometimes seems to have lost his way after his early successes. I think the closest that Reitman’s come to giving us a good film post-Young Adult was with Tully and even then, that felt more like a Diablo Cody film than a Jason Reitman film.
But, with all of that in mind, I still really like Jason Reitman’s early films and I think that he still has the potential to once again be an important and interesting filmmaker. Thank You For Smoking and Juno are better than many give them credit for being. Charlize Theron has never been better than she was in Young Adult. Finally, this morning, I rewatched 2009’s Up In The Air for the first time in a long time and I was pleasantly surprised to see how well it holds up.
Up In The Air features George Clooney and Anna Kendrick. Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, an obsessive traveler who boats about living a life without commitment. Ryan works for a company that hires him out to fire people. If your boss is too much of a pussy to tell you that you’ve been terminated to your face, he hires Ryan to do it for him. Ryan specializes in trying to convince people that being fired is not a tragedy but an opportunity for a new beginning. Ryan also has a side gig as a motivational speaker. His speeches are largely about avoiding commitment and personal baggage.
Anna Kendrick plays Natalie Keener. Natalie works for the same company as Ryan but, at the age of 23 and just out of college, she’s a lot less confident when it comes to destroying people’s livelihoods. (“I’ve worked here for 17 years and I’m being fired by a 7th grader,” is one person’s response to being terminated by Natalie.) Natalie has come up with a new plan where all firings will be done via Skype. That way, the person doing the firing will never have to leave their office and won’t have to deal with the people they’ve fired one-on-one. Ryan says he considers this proposal to be inhumane but mostly, he’s just worried that he’ll lose his traveling privileges if Natalie’s plan is instituted.
Ryan and Natalie travel the country. Ryan teaches Natalie how to fire people and Natalie discovers that it’s not as easy to destroy someone’s life as she thought. Everywhere they go, they deal with people who are facing economic uncertainty. Ryan meets another frequent flyer, Alex (Vera Farmiga) and, after Alex reveals that she’s even less interested in commitment than Ryan, they begin an affair. Ryan starts to fall in love with Alex and even invited her to attend his sister’s wedding with him. However, Alex has a secret of her own.
One thing that I really like about Up in the Air is that Ryan and Natalie never end up sleeping together. I remember, when I first saw the movie, I was convinced that it was going to happen. After all, Ryan is handsome and charming and Natalie is attractive and, after her boyfriend dumps her, vulnerable. I was cringing at the knowledge that there would eventually be some contrived scene where Natalie and Ryan end up getting drunk and then end up waking up in bed together and the end result would be Natalie going from being a well-rounded, multi-dimensional character to just being a plot device in Ryan’s journey to becoming a better man. Well, there is a scene where Natalie and Ryan get drunk at the same time but it doesn’t lead to Natalie and Ryan becoming lovers and I respected Up in the Air for having enough respect for its characters to not do the convenient thing.
The other thing I liked about Up In The Air is that it’s one of the few films to make proper use of George Clooney’s deceptively smooth screen presence. We all know that Clooney is handsome and charming but what makes him an appealing actor is that there’s always been hints that there’s a lot dorkiness and insecurity hiding underneath the suave facade. Ryan may seem like he’s got it all together but, as the film progresses, you come to realize that he’s a lot more insecure and neurotic than he lets on. All of his snarky comments have more to do with his own fear of failure than anything else. Much as how the real life Clooney still sometimes seems as if he hasn’t fully gotten over being dismissed as just being another pretty face in the early days of his career, Ryan has never gotten over his dysfunctional childhood. Instead of taking a risk on love, he instead obsesses on getting frequent flyer miles. (At one point, Sam Elliott pops up out of nowhere and, in a scene that you could really only expect to find in a Jason Reitman film, gives Ryan a pep talk.) There’s a sadness to Ryan, one that seems to come from deep inside of his soul. Clooney does an excellent job of bringing that sadness to the surface while still giving a likable and compelling performance.
Up In The Air was released at a time when America was stuck in what seemed like a never-ending recession. Despite the fact that the news media and the politicians were insisting that things were on the verge of getting better (or, at the very least, boasting that unemployed actors were no longer “job-locked,” whatever the Hell that meant), many people believed that their best days were officially behind them. A lot of the contemporary reviews of the film focused on what it had to say about living in a time of economic uncertainty. That was ten years ago and we’re now living in a strong economy but, even so, Up In The Air still resonates. Reitman includes scenes in which people talk about what it was like to be fired. The majority of these people were not actors but were instead people recruited from the local unemployment office and they were speaking about their own experiences. The pain and resentment on their faces and in their voices is so palpable that it’s actually a bit jarring when J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis show up, playing employees who are “terminated” by Ryan. I guess I should admit that I’ve never actually been fired from a job but, after watching Up In The Air, it’s not something that I would ever want to experience.
Up In The Air holds up well. Reitman’s direction is quirky but effective and he does a good job of mixing comedy in with the drama. (Wisely, whenever he has to make a choice, he emphasizes the drama over the comedy, instead of trying to maintain some sort of mythical 50/50 balance between them.) This film features one of George Clooney’s best performances and he has a really likable chemistry with Vera Farmiga. Anna Kendrick also does a great job with a character who could have become a stereotype in less skilled hands. Finally, along with Juno and The Gift, this film is one of the reasons why I always have a hard time watching Jason Bateman in any film or show where he’s cast as hero. Bateman plays Ryan’s boss and the character is so smarmy (and Bateman does such a good job of playing him) that he’ll make your skin crawl.
It’s been a while since Up In The Air was first released and Jason Reitman’s career has had its ups and downs. Still, regardless of whatever film Reitman makes next, Up In The Air remains a classic of the aughts.