Thursday, March 11, 2010

Up In the Air: Grade A

Up in the Air (2009)
George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick; Director Jason Rietman.

Clooney is an HR consultant hired by firms to fire people when they need to cut staff. He lives most of his life flying and traveling through airports. Along the way he meets Farmiga, also a frequent flyer, although it is unclear what she does. They strike up a relationship in an airport bar and continue a no-strings attached sexual friendship whenever their travel schedules intersect. It is an extremely slow starter. Clooney describes his life and values in a deadly voiceover and the dialog with Farmiga is so rushed and cute it is simply not believable. The first half hour is boring as mud. That relationship eventually turns extremely interesting however.

Kendrick’s character is a recent hire to the HR firm. She is assigned to travel with Clooney to learn the ropes. Her acting jumps off the screen and she certainly holds her own against Clooney and Farmiga. Her character is clunky, na├»ve and nerdy alternating with sensitive and sophisticated, but she overcomes the weak writing by sheer force of acting ability.

Sets, costumes, locations, cinematography, and even hair-dos are perfection in this movie. The airport hotels and the Milwaukee wedding are especially cringe-producing in their accuracy. The music is just awful, mostly a nasal folk singer whining over a thin guitar, and they gradually crescendo the sound track until it is deafening and you have to hit the mute button. That happens at least four times in the movie, so there must have been some kind of payola going on to justify it.

And speaking of payola, the movie was well-funded by product placements: American Airlines, Hertz, Hampton Inns, Hilton, to name a few. Nevertheless, a huge collection of production companies was announced in the beginning, so it would be interesting to learn how this picture came together.

The collection of wisely deleted scenes illustrates how the themes of modern alienation, difficult relationships, and economic hardship were carefully refined after shooting. Despite its flaws, I rate the movie highly because of strong acting, especially by Kendricks and Farmiga, but Clooney also acts, a departure from his usual mugging, and because of those poignant existential themes that make it provocative, a movie that makes you think about the human condition in modern America.

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