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Film Review

Up in the Air

To spend time in airports and airplanes today is a contemporary version of hell. Most of the time it seems like karmic punishment, and at best, travelers are treated like livestock. Even those who fly first class and use elite status lounges don't fare much better. Imagine then, a man who flew 322 days last year, and whose goal is a ten million mile frequent flier status. Up in the Air, a film by Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking) looks closely at this man In this clever but ultimately poignant story, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, an executive for a personnel company that specializes in firing people for managements too timid or craven to do it themselves. He flies to the various offices, then tells people, often long time employees, that they are "being let go". Ryan has become quite skilled at this, with his canned inspirational talk softening the blow, by telling people to let go and look to the future. Apparently the employees fired are the real thing, non actors recruited from several cities, and their pain and anger is wrenching. It is a film for the era, and makes real the statistics that we read daily. No other film has ever shown this so vividly, and their faces and pain are haunting.

Clooney's character has no real home, and thrives in his rootless life of nearly constant traveling. He loves the routine of clerks greeting him with respect, as befits his elite travel status. He frequently narrates his experiences and feelings, often with wry humor. But one day his boss hires a cute, self assured, young Cornell graduate, Natalie, complete with ponytail, who has an idea to save money. Rather than face to face interviews, firings would be done from a central location via tele conferencing, thereby saving the team from much of its travels. Ryan objects, saying that this is not good substitute for telling someone directly, and questions what this young woman can possibly know about the business of terminating employees. His boss decides to pair Natalie with Ryan so that she can learn exactly what Ryan does and hopefully learn his skills. He teaches her how to pack, who to follow or not follow through security, and many other useful travel tips. She listens as he begins to fire people, and seems stunned by the outpouring of emotion from the employees. Earlier, Ryan has met Alex, a executive who seems to do as much traveling as he does. She is attractive, witty, and independent, and there is a hilarious scene where each is comparing the other's credit, travel cards, and perks. They soon end up in bed, but each go their separate ways the next morning. Ryan is enchanted, and manipulates his schedule to see her again. She tells him not to feel any sense of obligation, and that if he wants to see her again, just call. Her independence is underscored by her statement that "I am just like you, only I have a vagina". One day his older sister calls him for help with their younger sister's wedding, and slowly, but surely, his ideal of total independence without entangling relationships, begins to shift. Ironically, Ryan gives motivational talks on the virtues of being unentangled. I won't reveal more, but there are some real surprises that follow.

The casting and acting is uniformly outstanding, not just by Clooney, but by Vera Famiga and Anna Kendrick, who play Alex and Natalie. Neither is eclipsed by Clooney. The camera work is accomplished, including numerous aerial shots of farms and cities, all with tight editing and a generally fast paced story. Music is also well done, beginning with the opening against the soundtrack of Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land. Reitman has produced a very fine film, surprisingly complex, that skillfully uses close observation, edgy humor, and good dialog to look at what is truly important in life. There is an unexpected power and poignancy to Up in the Air, with its very timely theme. Opened a month ago exclusively at the SF Center, but fortunately has just begun screening at the Kabuki and the Vogue.

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