Review: "Air" Soars to Great if Uncomplicated Heights

A review of "Up In the Air," the upcoming film directed by Jason Reitman and starring George Clooney

At various points in “Up in the Air,” a new dramatic comedy from director Jason Reitman, we see employees being fired from their jobs.  They are, for the most part, played not by actors, but by real people who had recently become unemployed and agreed to recreate the situation for the film.  It’s a manipulative trick, a broad shot at an easy target during the current economic climate, and it’s one that could easily turn a more cynical audience member against the film.  But it’s also unbelievably effective.  Reitman has always worked in broad strokes, but with his latest film he has honed his crowd-pleasing skills to such an art form that he now has to be considered a director at the forefront of mainstream filmmaking. 

Reitman gained acclaim for 2007’s “Juno,” but that film, with its relentlessly quirky dialogue, felt more like a product of Diablo Cody’s Oscar-winning screenplay than its direction.  Here there’s no such confusion, as Reitman, working from his own script (albeit one adapted from a novel) and with many of his recurring actors, is clearly in charge.               

The story revolves around Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a “downsizing expert” who’s happy to spend his life on airplanes, flying around the country to fire unwanted employees so their bosses don’t have to do it themselves.  It plays like a natural evolution of Reitman’s first film, “Thank You For Smoking.”  Both films focus on men justifying their morally questionable jobs (in the case of “Smoking,” a lobbyist for Big Tobacco).  But that film, with its sarcastic narration and smug lead, felt detached and condescending towards its characters and their predicament.  “Up in the Air” is more sympathetic, showing you the difficulties dealt with by characters on both sides of the great employment divide.  And as such the laughs and the film itself stick with you for longer.             

 As effective as the film is, the lack of gray in its viewpoint at times is frustrating.  Those of us who think we can live a happy and fulfilling life without getting married and having children, well, according to this film, that’s just wrong.  And a middle section of Clooney discovering what’s really important in life at his sister’s Midwestern wedding seems especially predictable.  But even this stretch where we seem to know exactly where the film is heading turns out to set us up for some unexpected twists in the movie’s final third.  Throughout it all, Reitman is completely in control of his tools, however blunt they may be.  He’s an uncommon artist, one who can stir deep emotions using a set of Crayolas.  It’s a powerful skill to have.  


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