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Movie Review: UP IN THE AIR, with Notes from Q & A with Jason Reitman and Cast

Submitted by on November 22, 2009 – 11:40 pm 11 Comments

If you read this blog regularly, you know I’ve been reviewing a string of movies that, though well-crafted, are so depressing you need to down a fistful of Xanax after watching. Imagine my relief, then, when I got to see Jason Reitman’s wonderful Up in the Air (opening Dec. 4), which is moving and thought-provoking but also entertaining in the purest sense of the word.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who flies all over the country to fire people when in-house managers don’t have the stones to do it themselves. Theoretically, this third-party method also protects company personnel from retaliation by pink-slipped employees. (Be sure and read my notes below from the Q & A; Reitman told amazing stories about using non-actors who’d really lost their jobs.)

© DW Studs./Cold Spring Pics./Dale Robinette

It’s a tough line of work but Bingham loves it. He’s got his firing technique honed to a science, has no problem staying disconnected from people’s emotional reactions, and is more comfortable on the road than in his apartment, which looks less homey than his hotel rooms. He also has Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent flyer and bed partner whenever they’re in the same city. No strings, no responsibilities— just the way Bingham likes it.

© DW Studs./Cold Spring Pics./Dale Robinette

His existence is threatened when his boss (Jason Bateman) hires a precocious upstart, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who suggests that firings can be done via teleconference to save travel costs. When Bingham protests, his boss tells him to take her on the road to see which method is better. Though high-strung and ambitious, Natalie helps Bingham realize that being grounded, literally and emotionally, might be a good thing.

Clooney’s performance here is his most vulnerable yet. There are times when Bingham is looking at Alex and Clooney just strips his face naked—eyes softened, completely defenseless—making you think, if you didn’t know better, that you’re watching him fall in love with Farmiga right there on screen. Sometimes his gaze is so intimate, I felt like a perv stealing his private moments.

© DW Studs./Cold Spring Pics./Dale Robinette

Farmiga matches Clooney note for note and the heat between them is potent. She’s been consistently strong in little-seen films like Down to the Bone and Breaking and Entering; here’s hoping Air will take her career higher.

Kendrick is having a moment right now with this movie and New Moon, in which she plays Bella’s friend Jessica. She deserves the attention; her work here is infused with maturity and smarts. (Can’t comment on her Moon performance since I probably won’t see it.)

© DW Studs./Cold Spring Pics./Dale Robinette

As for director, producer and co-writer Reitman (the movie is based on a novel by Walter Kirn), he’s proven beyond a doubt he’s no Tori Spelling. I’ll go further to say this movie is better than anything his father, Ivan, ever directed. Jason includes social commentary and emotional resonance with the humor; I can’t say the same for Meatballs, Twins or Kindergarten Cop. (OK, Ghostbusters was good but not Oscar material.) When Air is up for Best Picture—I think it has an excellent chance of winning —you’ll root for it, not roll your eyes like you do at elitist films that leave you wondering, “What the hell?”

After the Variety screening I attended, Reitman, Farmiga and Kendrick participated in a Q & A. Interesting tidbits revealed:

  • The film’s St. Louis casting director, Joni Tackette, placed an ad looking for people who had recently lost their jobs and were willing to share their experiences on camera. Though actors (J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis among them) play some of the laid-off workers, twenty-two respondents ended up in the firing sequences, using their own words. Reitman said they talked about things he’d never think to write, in a way he’d never think to direct them. [This made for incredibly affecting scenes. When I was watching them, I kept thinking, “Who are all these actors? They’re so real.”]
  • After a speaking engagement in St. Louis, Reitman was approached by a 50-year-old man named Kevin with a cassette tape. On it, Kevin explained he’d just lost his job and had written a song about what it means to try and find purpose in the world. Reitman said “what follows isn’t the most beautiful song but [it’s] incredibly authentic.” He put it over the end credits, complete with Kevin’s intro about his situation.
  • The movie was mostly shot in St. Louis and Detroit, which were among the cities hardest hit by the recession. Cast and crew filmed in office buildings that were cleared out and abandoned like they were supposed to be in the movie.
  • Alex and Natalie aren’t in the book. Reitman wrote those roles specifically for Farmiga and Kendrick.
  • Farmiga said she confided in Clooney that if she could cuddle up to any cinematic character, she’d choose Karl from Sling Blade. This made Clooney repeatedly do Karl imitations between takes.
  • Clooney never goes to his trailer and never wears any makeup. Ever.

Nerd verdict: Up in the Air is first-class

11 Comments »

  • Reader#9 says:

    I must admit the trailer hasn’t really sold me yet. The next Clooney movie I was planning to see is Men Who Stare At Goats. (ya gotta admit it looks funny)

    I’ve heard some good buzz, but yours is the first review I’ve read. Although I have never been a fan of Vera Farmiga (no, I haven’t seen Down to the Bone; hell, I haven’t even heard of it), I will check it out with some friends over the holidays and get back to you.

  • A George Clooney movie is somewhat like a Robert Downey Jr. movie in it for me ~ I’ll watch it regardless. {Wait. Did I say that yesterday about Colin Firth? Rats, I’m predictable!!} The plot appeals to me, so does GC, so I’m in. Thanks for another infinitely helpful review, PCN!

  • Dan Dassow says:

    According to Nebraska Independent Film Projects, “’Up In the Air’ Looking for Extras” (http://www.nifp.org/node/758), Joni Tackette also cast extras in Omaha.

    While shooting the film in St. Louis and Detroit, Reitman had Joni Tackette place an ad in the paper asking if people who recently lost their job wanted to be in a documentary about job loss. He specified documentary in the ad so actors who wanted to be in the production would not answer the ad. They received a startling amount of responses with 100 responses, 60 people on camera and 22 who made it into the film. They interviewed them for about ten minutes on what it is like to lose their job in this kind of economy and after that they would actually fire them on camera and ask them to either respond the way they did the day they lost their job or if they preferred the way they wished they had responded.

    Kevin Renick wrote the song Up in the Air two years prior to knowing that Reitman was working on a film adaptation to the book. He was recently laid off at the time, and is an unrecorded, unemployed St. Louis musician. He handed a cassette to Reitman after the director did a Q&A at Webster University. Reitman found a tape deck, listened, liked the song and placed it midway through the credits.

    Up in the Air was the centerpiece for the 18th Annual St. Louis International Film Festival, was held November 12–22, 2009. It was shown November 14, 2009 at 7:00 pm at the Tivoli Theater in University City, Missouri with Jason Reitman and Michael Beugg in attendance. Kevin Renick, a St. Louis musician who wrote the song Up in the Air, performed half an hour prior to the screening. Yukon Jake, who performed during the wedding scene in Up in the Air, provided entertainment during the party held prior to the screening. The party took place at the St. Louis Ballpark Hilton and the Airport Hilton. Both are featured in the film.

    On November 14, 2009, Paramount flew 50 members of the press to New York with Anna Kendrick, Sad Brad Smith and representatives of American Airlines to promote Up in the Air. The film was shown on the aircraft’s video monitors during the flight from New York to Los Angeles. American Airlines provided the Boeing 767 gratis. Smith performed a few songs including Help Yourself in the aisle of the aircraft.

  • EIREGO says:

    YAY!!! I wanted to go see that. Heard it was a really crisp film and worth my hard earned money.

    FINALLY a decent movie.

  • Hayley says:

    Oh, I love the stories about how Jason used real people in the movie. I imagine (hope) it was somewhat therapeutic for them to talk about their experiences and say what they wished they’d said when they were laid off.

    Thanks as usual for this behind-the-scenes info, PCN.

  • le0pard13 says:

    I’m very glad for your review (and that you appreciated the film so), PCN. Ever since I read about the plot, and casting, I’ve looked forward to it. I like Clooney a lot (Michael Clayton is one of my wife and I’s favorite films–and believe me, that doesn’t happen a lot at my home). I concur that Jason’s director-career trajectory is headed far higher that his dad’s (something I’m sure any father would be happy to hear). But, maybe it’s a guy-thing, I gotta give it to Ivan for Stripes and the first Ghostbusters. Perhaps, they were not Oscar-worthy, but they were as good as any back-to-back directed movies for anyone on a purely fun basis. Excellent review and write-up, PCN. Thanks for this.

  • Julien says:

    Hey PCN!
    Your reviews definitely deserve some money from the producers cos’ they really often make me want to see the movies you’re talking about (and make me go and see them actually!)! 😉

    I also like the idea of real people having been fired and sharing their authentic experience within the movie.
    Oh, and Vera Farmiga does deserve some attention! I remember her from “Breaking and entering” (good movie with great casting), “Running scared” (this thriller was an excellent surprise, it’s efficient, captivating and smarter than most action movies) and “Never forever (this film is not very well-known, yet it is a real gem, brilliant, moving… Check it out!).
    Thanks for the Q&A extracts too!

  • Pop Culture Nerd says:

    Reader#9, the trailer for Goats looked hilarious but the movie’s been widely trashed. I tracked down the shooting script so I’ll read a few scenes to see what’s what.

    Shell, I don’t think you were discombobulated because you were watching TV while typing. I think it’s because you mentioned RDJ, Clooney and Colin Firth in the same comment.

    Dan, why do I get the feeling you just cut and pasted that right off your wikipedia page? Thanks for the additional background info.

    EIREGO, yes, definitely worth your money, in my opinion. If you live in L.A. or NY, you can see it next week. If not, it opens everywhere Dec. 25.

    Hayley, I hoped the do-over helped those people, too.

    lp13, I never saw Stripes but thought Ghostbusters was fun as hell so it’s not necessarily a guy thing.

    Julien, you’re quite a Farmiga fan! Have you seen Nothing but the Truth? She’s quite good in there, too.

  • le0pard13 says:

    Just wanted to say I really enjoyed this. I can see it drawing a lot of nom’s (though, I did guess early about Alex). Clooney showed more (subtle) acting range in this than in Michael Clayton (and I thought he was great in that). Thanks for the early review and clue-in.

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