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TBTS Reviews: Up In the Air

February 2, 2010

It’s easy to forget that George Clooney is a good actor. This is, I think, largely because many people we consider to be good actors aren’t also, simultaneously, sought-after celebrities in the rabid, star-starved public eye. Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep come to mind. I’m sure Sir Anthony heads out to his local pub every now and then for a pint. And likewise I’m sure Meryl Streep goes shopping on Rodeo Drive. But few really good actors are also media darlings or paparazzi fodder. For instance, we’re not reading what Streep or Hopkins are ordering at a New York Diner on Page Six of the Post.

The fact that Clooney is an oft-single, swinging bon vivant sometimes leads one to forget that he’s quite adept on the screen. Take Jason Reitman’s Up In the Air, for instance. The lead role of Ryan Bingham — a traveling hatchetman facing obsolescence as a Skype-esque program for firing people via internet threatens to take him off the road for good — could have been played by a myriad of different actors (Kevin Spacey or Dustin Hoffman would qualify). But it’s Clooney who sells it, and it’s Clooney who makes us believe this guy really exists. He’s not a hangdog traveling salesman type. He’s a sharp, clever loner who actually enjoys being on the road — so much so, in fact, that his rarely-visited apartment in Omaha eerily resembles any number of Courtyard Marriott guest rooms. In short, it’s Clooney that reminds you just how good he can be when he wants to be.

Up In the Air reminds one of the “lesson” comedies of the late nineties and early 2000’s —  films like American Beauty, Sideways and Lost in Translation — which were humorous explorations of the “the things that make us all human.” Like those films, the central narrative focuses on a small hub of characters who may or may not come to some catharsis, by the end of the final act, about the trajectory of their own lives. In this particular case, Clooney’s Bingham plays a constant business traveler with designs on reaching a predetermined number of frequent flier miles and launching his own brand of self-help speaking engagements. When saddled with a young protegé (Anna Kendrick, best remembered from the indie comedy Rocket Science) learning the ropes on the business of firing corporate drones for CEOs who can’t do it themselves, Bingham plays the clichéd role of the reluctant mentor. As he ushers Kendrick around the country, he also courts a fellow on-the-roader in Alex (a barely fleshed-out, but good, Vera Farmiga).

The film sways back and forth between clever back-and-forth dialogue and poetic scenes of the solitary Clooney in transit, shot artfully in empty terminals or packed planes. The crux of the conflict comes in the irony that, for a guy who loves the lonesome get-up-and-go of life on the road, Bingham is suddenly finding himself balancing many of the very issues from which he bases his life on dodging. As his fondness for Farmiga’s character grows, his refusal of Kendrick’s motives soften and we see, just as we thought we might, the dynamic shift in Clooney’s character from loner to open-hearted.

Sure, there are some twists along the way, and this ain’t earthshattering stuff, to be honest. The award buzz surrounding it may be more likely due to a weak film year and not because Up In the Air’s going to stick with you — because it probably won’t. Much like Reitman’s prior film, Thank You For Smoking, you’ll enjoy it while it flickers in front of you — and you may even take to heart the lessons learned by the main characters — but you’re not going to be going on and on about this movie in ten years. It’s solid and it’s good, even if it’s pretty slight.

Clooney’s the show here; make no mistake about it. And while several other actors probably could have carried this show, there’s something immensely likeable about Clooney as an actor. Up In the Air isn’t a great movie, but Clooney’s great in it. Sometimes that’s good enough to make a good movie better. And that may just be enough to get Up In the Air a few more awards before the season’s out. Even if, in six months or so, you don’t really remember it at all.

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