' ' Cinema Romantico: Up in the Air

Monday, December 21, 2009

Up in the Air

Do you think George Clooney takes stage directions? In his movies, like, say, "Up in the Air", do you think director Jason Reitman provided Clooney pointers on the facial expressions the scene called for or whether he should convey feelings through certain body language? Or do you think Clooney just did all this on his own? The smiles, the shrugs, the tics, the tilts of the head, is it all him? Does he humor insecure directors by nodding at tips they offer before taking the character in the way he sees fit?

I get the distinct sense Clooney sculpts these characters in his own image. Not to say that he just plays himself all the time because I definitely don't think he does (see: "Men Who Stare At Goats") but there is something in the portrayal he offers in "Up in the Air", based on a novel by Walter Kirn and adapted by Reitman himself, that I feel safe in advising would not be present with any other actors we currently have.

Clooney is Ryan Bingham (a nod to the great country rock troubadour who wrote the line "Tell me the secrets of the endless road"? - uh, probably not, since the novel came out in 2002 but it's fun to pretend), a man who travels for a living, to offices all over the country where he pinch hits for those in charge who lack the necessary courage to fire their employees. He is good at his job and he has no trouble living out of hotels because, as the voiceover to open the film tells us, those things most people dislike about travel are the very things that remind him he is home. (Why, you even see him touch down in my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa where an aerial shot proves once and for all that, yes, Des Moines has a skyscraper! Golly gee whillickers!)

Times are on the verge of change. His boss, a suspendered (?) Jason Bateman, calls Ryan back to the home office in Omaha. The company is developing a new approach to all this "career transitioning" - they will be firing people via the web, a tactic that is the brainchild of overzealous, uppity whiz kid Natalie (a perfect Anna Kendrick, I have seen this woman a couple times at offices where I have toiled, believe me) who, at one point in the midst of a hysterical fit, delivers a line that left me gasping for air I laughed so hard. "I was supposed to be driving a Grand Cherokee by now!" Ryan, as one might expect, does not take kindly to this news. Thus he and Natalie team up so he can show her the proverbial ropes and perhaps teach her a thing or two about the etiquette of letting people go. Whether or not roles get flipped and find Natalie teaching Ryan a thing or two I will leave for you to discover.

Of course, the road will dangle another temptation. Ryan meets a fellow chronic traveler, Alex (Vera Farmiga), and they develop a rapport possible only to people who reference O'Hare International Airport as "ORD". They open up their laptops like datebooks to see where their schedules sync so they can get together. Whether or not this relationship expands beyond Holiday Inn Express hookups I will leave for you to discover.

It might be fashionable to pronounce "Up in the Air", when considering our current economic and employment crisis, to be a Movie For Our Times. But this does not seem to be Reitman's intent. The book, from what I have read, was much more cold and cynical. The film focuses more on Ryan's romantic and personal predicaments.

What do I know is the reason "Up in the Air" works at all is because of Clooney. You hear of a movie about a corporate downsizer estranged from his own family and married to the road who meets a beautiful woman in the sterile confines of an airport's Admirals Club and you can pretty much guess what sort of performance you will be seeing. A quiet, impersonable fellow whose smiles mask a much deeper sadness, someone who partakes often in the hotel minibar to deal with the dislike he has for his own job.

But this Ryan Bingham doesn't seem so sad. He takes his job seriously, knowing that laying a person off, whoever it is, wherever they are, is a terrible event and that while he cannot make it easy for the person across from him he can do things with a little bit of dignity. His anger at these new fangled web cams is not reactionary but because the service he provides is necessary. This is what Clooney himself brings across to us.

We expect the beguiling woman he meets to bring into sharp focus the emptiness of his life, the painful fact he has never cultivated any personal relationships and, thus, he realizes his depressing circumstances. We expect the woman to exist solely as a conduit to draw out the protagonist. That's it. Again, Clooney doesn't play it this way. When you meet someone special - and you know when you've met them - what stuns you the most is how he or she affects you. Right? Clooney makes us completely aware of how Alex is affecting him. She isn't just a vehicle meant to kickstart him. This is much more tricky to pull off than it sounds.

All the depth, all the higher meaning to be found from "Up in the Air" is generated by its lead actor. Isn't that what makes a great performance?

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