Termination Facilitation at 10,000 Feet, by Jason Eaken

18 Dec

UP IN THE AIR (2009)
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Written by: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
Starring: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga

Jason Reitman is the real thing. Though comparisons to the family patriarch may never go away, he has managed to effortlessly establish himself as his own entity. At 32 years old, he is one of the best filmmakers working today. More impressive than his age, he’s done it in just three films, all comedies. His latest, Up in the Air, is also his best.

Some might argue that 2007’s Juno catapulted him to elite status (it earned him an Oscar nomination), but with “Up in the Air” he is showing a maturity of form that perfectly blends the disparate styles of his previous films and enhancing them in the process. From the cinematography to the editing to the music, Reitman creates an exciting adult comedy that is thoroughly entertaining, intelligent, and moving.

Up in the Air stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a Termination Expert who never feels at home at home. He sees home where others see transition. He flies from metropolis to metropolis — and sometimes Wichita, too — informing employees that their positions are no longer available and that the sooner they accept this fact the sooner they can start moving toward the next exciting chapter of their lives.

Yes, but what happens when Bingham’s own company makes some changes? We meet Natalie (Anna Kendrick), an early 20’s college grad who convinces the company that the function they serve can be done just as easily and more efficiently via web-cam. And so Bingham is forced to take her on the road with him.

Their road-trip-in-the-sky plot line is the driving force of the movie, as they travel from city to city. There is also Alex (Vera Farmiga), who meets Clooney’s Bingham when the pair use Airline Club mileage cards as foreplay. Their immediate connection leads to the best use of a neck-tie in cinema history.

And so we have a triangle, in Clooney, Kendrick, and Farmiga. Not a love triangle, though; more of a lifestyle triangle. All three actors are outstanding. The two women have very different perspectives on life, but look at the confidence the actresses exude. Farmiga has a way of tilting her head and sortof half-smiling as she recognizes herself sitting across from her. Instead of giving us an empty rivalry or faux-disdain, the movie shows us two intelligent, beautiful women at different places in their lives.

George Clooney is brilliant at playing skilled men whose work informs their personal behavior. Think of him in movies like Out of Sight, Syriana, and Michael Clayton (or even his Fantastic Mr. Fox from earlier this year). Ryan Bingham is another variation on that theme, and even though Clooney is a movie star, he’s not doing a retread. He finds layers of complexity in the spaces between his confidence, cynicism, and weariness. Whatever his employer’s motives, Bingham finds value in his job and the uniquely intimate position he’s in. When people get upset, he doesn’t deflect, he redirects, and he creates the difference between those two words.

Reitman incorporates real-life interviews with layed-off men and women. Its brilliance isn’t just in its concept, either. Though each of the dozens of interviewees only speaks for about 10 seconds each, the film actually seems to be about them. It doesn’t use them as a ploy, but observes them with compassion for their situation and frustration. He incorporates some great character actors into their mix, including J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis, while Jason Bateman rounds out the ensemble as Clooney’s boss.

The film was adapted from a novel but is wildly different. That’s one of Reitman’s best qualities. Though he’s said he isn’t interested in writing wholly original works, he uses the source material to inspire untapped layers for his films, to which he adds his own sensibility. It is a dichotomy befitting one of his own films that Up in the Air is simultaneously his most mature movie and his funniest.

To hear the podcast episode about Up in the Air, click here.

8 Responses to “Termination Facilitation at 10,000 Feet, by Jason Eaken”

  1. Robert December 30, 2009 at 2:53 pm #

    I don't remember, do we ever learn why Clooney's character is so anti-relationship? I remember wondering throughout the movie, and unless I missed something, I don't think we get it. Without that, the character is just floating there, a mouthpiece for a point of view, but not real, no matter how well performed. That's okay in a satire, maybe, but not in a movie that's trying to make us feel. Also, the movie tries hard to make the point that whatever the main character's bitterness, marriage is a good thing. Then it ends on that unnecessarily glum note. Am I supposed to feel sorry for this guy who's stupidly wasted his whole life, only to make a spasmic attempt to settle down with a fling who likes him for his nice smile? That's a dumb downer. Some funny moments and some great dialogue and performances, but the movie's as lost as its main character.

  2. Robert January 5, 2010 at 10:53 pm #

    That's why I love this site, for it's willingness to engage in conversation.

  3. Robert January 5, 2010 at 10:54 pm #

    Scuse me. "Its". But who will see?

  4. Tyler Smith January 6, 2010 at 3:55 am #

    As much as I like a character to have a strong motivation, I'm almost positive that any motivation assigned to Clooney's character would have only cheapened his stance. Because, then, the question would become whether or not his experiences excuse his worldview. As his worldview is largely inexcusable, this question would prove to be more of a distraction than anything else.
    Perhaps his parents got divorce. Perhaps they died. Perhaps he was in a bad relationship early on.
    Or, quite possibly, none of those were the case. Perhaps he holds his current worldview simply because it has never been truly challenged; maybe it was his default setting, rather than a reaction to an event.
    I kind of like our not being shown what happened to him. It allows us to imagine what, if anything, may have occurred. However, not everything is as clear cut as that. It's possible that nothing specifically occurred; just that he arrived at this philosophy and couldn't think of a reason to discard it. I've known plenty of people that hold views without any particular reason why, both Christian and otherwise. I think I may have felt a bit insulted if the film tried to arbitrarily assign a motivation for it all.

  5. Robert January 6, 2010 at 10:52 pm #

    I'm sure Reitman and Clooney must have talked about the character's backstory and motivation. I'm also sure leaving out those things in the movie was deliberate. I just think it was a mistake. Just like in life when I meet someone who is so completely extreme on some subject, in this movie I kept wanting another character to stop and say "how did you get here?" Just a couple of lines of dialogue would have satisfied that need to ask. Even if the answer (and I think it would've added to the cleverness of an already clever movie) was something like, "Nothing made me this way. I'm just clear in my mind. I know what I like. I know what I need. And it's not being tied to one woman the rest of my life." I completely disagree that this would have weakened the movie or been a distraction. It would have filled what is, for my money, a void in the script for all the reasons I mentioned earlier. I'll never subscribe to the notion that a reason given for an argument will cheapen the stance of the arguer. And to another point you made: a worldview is not inexcusable if you in fact have an excuse for it. I just kept wondering what that excuse was in Ryan's case.

  6. Jason January 10, 2010 at 12:15 pm #

    ***NOTE: THEMATIC SPOILERS AHEAD***

    Good characters are created and defined by Action, not exposition. I think a mistake many films make is explaining away their characters' behavior with simplistic background information.
    I disagree that a reason is always a good thing. That they exist for a character and can be speculated about by viewers with some reasonableness is all I require. To provide it, particularly coming from Clooney's own mouth implies a level of self-awareness that would have been a mistake. The thing about the unexamined life is, of course, it doesn't remain that way once you start examining it.
    And this is Clooney's journey over the course of the film. His seminar is his declaration about human behavior. Why would a character who compares people to sharks (always moving forward) spend his time looking back and reflecting? I learned plenty about his past from the overheard snippets that came from his family during their scenes.
    Also, I didn't find the ending glum at all. I found it beautifully open-ended. He knows he wants his life to change, wants to act differently. Now, staring at a board filled with destinations, what will he do? This film is ABOUT that moment of self-realization.
    Finally, I would like to argue my point using a few other recent cinema characters: Daniel Plainview from "There Will Be Blood," Joker from "The Dark Knight," and Anton Chigurh from "No Country For Old Men." These characters' pasts are not explained. They are defined by their actions. We get only hints of their capital R- reasons, they rest we must guess at based on their actions. To tell us how/why they arrived at their current worldview cheapens the power of their characters. If they wouldn't divulge such information to us, then the burden is on the movie to create a reason for us to know.

  7. Robert January 12, 2010 at 2:43 am #

    Your premise: "good characters are created and defined by action, not exposition", is highly appreciated.

    As so many discussions go, one is left defending something he never meant to be an all or nothing thing. In this case, that movies should always explain why their characters are the way they are. No one who is reasonable would ever defend that. Likewise, no one who is reasonable would say that some movies wouldn't benefit from more information. I say "information" instead of "exposition", automatic pejorative that it is, since info in the name of character building is not always bad — and in the case of this movie, something I still feel was missing. To your point, yes, the fact that the three movies you listed are memorable and fascinating is proof that they don't need character backstories. (And in fact, Dark Knight outright MAKES FUN OF the idea of character backstories.) But, also a big maybe, the fact that Up in the Air is not as memorable or fascinating to me is proof that it did need it.

    [Sidenote: comparing this movie to those three movies is hard for me, as they are clearly aiming for something "larger than life" or "archetypical" or "whatever phrase you want to use for not quite meant to be taken as this-can-happen-to-you." Ironically, Up in the Air is more grounded than those three, in terms of attempting to mirror our daily lives. So its reliance on backstory-as-character-identification is more necessary, though not mandatory. Just spitballing here.]

    Also, I can't explain why UITA depressed me without seeing it again. The memory of this movie, like so many others, is already fading. But it did depress me. Maybe there comes a time in a man's life when he's seen enough indie slogs with dreary, this-is-how-my-soul-aches soundtrack songs to last awhile. I saw enough of those in the 90s and early 00s to fill my store for the rest of my life. These days, a melancholy chord of a certain brand can pull me out of a movie for ten minutes while my brain tries to stop comparing it to a 2 a.m. Sundance Channel short. This movie deserved better than the songs it layered over itself most laser-like.

    Also, as with such conversations, one moves from having slight problems with a movie to hating it outright. It's my own fault. I started this.

  8. Jason January 14, 2010 at 1:24 am #

    Well, there you go, then.
    I have a bit higher tolerance for the soul-aching-music than you seem to, so that's fine. I liked the music, of course.
    I'm seeing the film again tonight and after our discussion here I am going to be paying closer attention. You are correct, information is not always a bad thing, and there are certainly times when I feel like a film could have used a bit more. I'm in the minority on "Lost in Translation," which I think is a good, not great movie and has some similarities.
    And the films I mentioned do all contain larger than life characters. And they are all villains and are, in some ways, about the way evil is hard to get your fingers around, let alone your mind. So, perhaps not the most well-rounded of examples.
    On the other hand, we watched a Mamet trilogy last week, consisting of "Glengarry Glen Ross," "Oleanna" and "American Buffalo" and I was thinking about those characters and how Mamet gives only slivers of information about his characters' pasts. How precise he is (or was at least) about how he incorporates that information. Perhaps that's what you're talking about that you felt was not there in Reitman's film. I thought it was, at least, it was enough for me. We'll see how it goes the second time around.

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