The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Up in the Air

I watch my fair share of 'big' movies, stories where the fate of the world or a country depend on one key moment.  Those tendencies goes well with war, action, Bond, superheroes, anything similar because a bigger scale is key to their success.  So watching those movies, it can be an enjoyable twist to just watch a movie every so often that is about one or two people and who they really are as individuals.  You don't need supervillains trying to take over the world, or a country about to go under.  It was a critical favorite, but I missed it in theaters, 2009's Up in the Air.

The economic struggles the world has gone through in the last half-decade or so sets the groundwork for this story.  Companies and corporations worldwide were forced into firing thousands of employees because the money just wasn't there to pay them their salaries.  Families and individuals alike were forced to improvise on the fly and adjust to their new job-less lives.  But what about when a company/corporation wanted nothing to do with the actual firing process?  That's where Up in the Air steps in with the always cool, always suave George Clooney handling the firing duties.

Working for a nameless company, middle-aged Ryan Bingham (Clooney) spends 300-plus days a year traveling across the country going from company to company helping them fire their employees one-by-one in  a face to face situation.  It's a horrific job, but Bingham is good at it, and even weirder than that, he likes it.  Bingham lives out of his suitcase and dreads the time he has to spend at his bland, sparsely decorated apartment in Omaha.  He's called back to headquarters though where a new hire fresh out of college, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), has brought in a new technology that will erase the need for Ryan and his co-workers to travel to these places, instead firing people on a computer.  But first, Ryan's boss (Jason Bateman) wants him to take Natalie on the road for a few weeks and show her how it's really done.

Nominated for a handful of Oscars including Best Picture, Best Directing, and three different acting categories, it's easy to see why director Jason Reitman's movie did so well critically and in theaters pulling in over $80 million.  Just like Reitman's Juno, it's a slick, professionally made movie that reeks of talent in front of and behind the camera.  The dialogue is quick and sharp as the characters talk in ways that ordinary people could never sound like, and the story has a visual edge as Ryan's airport/hotel life is shown in detail, quick cuts and all.  This might sound negative, but it really isn't.  It sounds like I'm resenting a movie that is well-made, but if anything it's too well-made.

Starting with the casting, the three main parts are all home run roles, all of them earning an Oscar nomination but none of them winning.  Clooney is a great actor, and about as safe as an actor currently out there in terms of turning in a great performance.  He somehow makes Ryan a likable character even though there's not much to root for in terms of personality, beliefs, or principles.  Bingham is charming though and that always helps.  He has an interesting relationship with a woman, Alex (Vera Farmiga), who is basically the female version of him. Neither is really looking for any sort of commitment, and in that way they bond.  Playing Natalie, Kendrick is the anti-Ryan so she naturally clashes with him, especially forced to work with him on the road.

Joining Bateman in the supporting cast is a handful of comedic actors who get to show their dramatic chops off.  In some cases, their appearances aren't anything more than a minute or two, but even with a limited amount of time they come across well.  J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis play two employees at different companies Ryan must fire, each of them handling the news in their own unique way.  Melanie Lynskey and Danny McBride (in dramatic scene-stealing mode, one monologue especially) play Ryan's sister and her husband-to-be with Amy Morton playing the sister trying to bring the family together.  Also look for Sam Elliott to make a quick appearance.  In a nice touch, Reitman also had actual fired employees play themselves in many scenes, giving an authentic feel to these already difficult scenes.

For me I thought the movie was at its best when sticking with Ryan -- and later Natalie -- on the road as they travel from airport to airport, always moving to another company that needs help.  There's drama, some dark humor thrown in, and a style that is visually pleasing and enjoyable to watch.  The story goes downhill a bit at Ryan's sister's wedding though, and even though it features some fine moments, it feels a little off.  The last 30 minutes featured a twist that I saw coming but was still bothered by it because one, it brings up some big plot holes, and two, I didn't like the revelation a character makes.  Still, the first hour builds up a lot of credit so the struggles in the second half aren't a deal breaker.

The ending itself is far from a happy ending, but it works for the Ryan character.  Depressing?  You bet, but it comes together for me.  Ryan's changed, but at the same time he hasn't.  He wants something else, but maybe he is too scared to look for it, or maybe he just doesn't know where to start.  It was a bit of a jarring ending, especially considering the last line.  You may not like the ending -- I didn't -- but for a realistic, feasible way to end the story, it fits together.

Up in the Air <----trailer (2009): ***/**** 

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