Up in the Air is the best film I’ve seen all year. Frankly, that isn’t much of a compliment, so let me be clearer: this is mainstream moviemaking at its best. It’s entertaining, first and foremost, but it’s also thoughtful, timely, and provocative. The film has been…
screened a lot here in Los Angeles and I’m already hearing bounce-back from some of my colleagues who are reluctant to accept a major studio movie with George Clooney as the leading contender for this year’s Oscars. (I’m more concerned that moviegoers, inundated with hype, will go to see it with outsized demands or expectations.)
Up in the Air doesn’t present itself as an Important Movie; that’s part of why it’s so engaging. It’s an interesting story that travels in unexpected directions. Clooney plays a man who is most at home on the road—in airports and hotel rooms—where he is master of his domain. Living this way also helps him keep friends and family at arm’s length, which is just the way he likes it. But change is in the air.
This is Jason Reitman’s third feature film, and his third bull’s-eye, following Thank You For Smoking and Juno. But while he’s commonly referred to as a director he is also a skillful and sensitive writer. Smoking was based on a novel he admired, by Christopher Buckley, but he invented the character of the tobacco lobbyist’s young son, to help humanize the cold-blooded protagonist and provide someone he (and we) could relate to. Up in the Air is based on a novel by the talented satirist Walter Kirn, but Reitman (and co-writer Sheldon Turner) has introduced another brand-new character—a young, ambitious business school grad, well played by Anna Kendrick—who completely changes the story’s dynamics, and he’s greatly expanded the role of Clooney’s business-travel bed partner, superbly enacted by Vera Farmiga. In fact, this film features two of the best-written, best-performed female roles of this or any year in recent memory.
Reitman has an aversion to clichés and formulas; that’s why this film works on so many levels. Just when you think you’ve got a character figured out, it turns out you don’t—because you’re expecting him or her to act like “types” we’ve come to expect in standard-issue Hollywood movies.