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With: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, J.K. Simmons, Sam Elliott, Danny McBride, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Lowell, Steve Eastin, Young MC, Cut Chemist, Adrienne Lamping, Meagan Flynn, Dustin Miles
Written by: Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner, based on a novel by Walter Kirn
Directed by: Jason Reitman
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content
Running Time: 109
Date: 12/04/2009

Up in the Air (2009)

3 Stars (out of 4)

A Wing and Despair

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jason Reitman's Up in the Air flies comfortably with some of the most obvious of Hollywood clichés, but also doubles back and runs right over them. It's an odd duality that has caused some critics to slam the film, but has caused many more critics to over-praise it. Personally, I'm not sure the film always knows what it's doing; it seems to be struggling between populist and satirical impulses. But there are many, many moments it gets right and it's an enjoyable, if minor entry in the year-end movie rush.

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, whose job is to fire people. He travels all over the country doing the dirty jobs that no one else wants to do. What's more, he loves traveling. He considers airports and airplanes his real home, and his apartment back in Omaha is just a temporary stopover. He has a whole system worked out, and he's proud of it. He's footloose and fancy-free, until a young upstart, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), decides that the company could save on travel costs by firing people over the 'net. Ryan complains about the new idea, and so his boss (Jason Bateman) sends them on the road together so that Natalie can learn the real-life ropes.

Already this setup reeks: Ryan must learn about what it's like to settle down and share his life with other people, and Natalie is the uptight one that must learn to loosen up. And Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno) sets up many of his scenes so that these old, tired routines can play out. But then he doubles back. The routines don't play out like they're supposed to.

For one thing, Ryan never hooks up with Natalie. Instead, he meets sexy Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) in a hotel bar; they share the same lifestyle and enjoy each other's company, and they agree to sleep together whenever they wind up in the same part of the country. Another major subplot comes when Ryan decides to attend his sister's wedding and must help the groom (Danny McBride) overcome cold feet. These setups, too, start to go just where you think they will go, and then suddenly detour.

The end result is that Up in the Air feels a bit schizophrenic. It wants to push the idea of family over isolation, of personal connections over technological barriers, but it subverts these ideas to avoid a conventional ending. In a way, however, this schizophrenia is as exciting and refreshing as it is baffling. It makes you want to look closer at the film, to see it again, to get a better idea of what Reitman's game is.

Happily, even if you don't get a handle on the movie's ultimate point, it does have wonderful moments that help pass the time, and the funny screenplay and air-conditioned atmosphere help a great deal. Clooney in particular fits the bill wonderfully, so much so that I couldn't picture anyone else pulling off the role -- with its hint of exhaustion -- quite so well. Farmiga is one of our best actresses at the moment, and she's wonderfully at ease here. Likewise Anna Kendrick adds a splash of unexpected depth to her uptight character. In other words, even if the landing isn't quite perfect, the ride is smooth and pleasant.

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