I've been waiting for the good crop of '09 films. They always wait until the very last minute.
And this year, a lot of them seem to involve George Clooney.
Fantastic Mr. Fox - with Clooney voicing said Mr. Fox- was, well, fantastic. But it was Wes Anderson directing stop motion animation, which is a better combination than I could have dreamt of in my philosophies, Horatio. That is to say, the interminably quirky (and my biggest cinematic crush) Anderson seems designed for an odd ball medium like stop motion. He writes and directs from the perspective of a brilliant but wimpy fourteen year old boy, and whatever a kid like that would think is totally cool. Mr. Fox looks exactly like an Anderson movie, just with puppets. And this in the same year as Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are. I mean, who did I please to get this? And how do I do it again? Kids are so spoiled these days. I had The Rainbow Bright Movie, and my kid gets to watch WTWTA and Fantastic Mr. Fox in the same year? Not Fair.
The only thing better than a Wes Anderson animated feature based on a Rohl Dahl book (I'm going to faint) was that my little son was in love with it from the first preview. Sitting in the shopping cart in the middle of the produce section of the grocery store a few weeks ago, he looks up and asks me, "Mom, who directed Fantastic Mr. Fox?" followed by who directed WTWTA, Nightmare Before Christmas, etc.
Yes, he is my son. (He's working on his own movie, titled Race Car Fight. His imaginary son is slated to be the DP)
Then, we went to see Up in the Air the day after Christmas. (Just Mr. Cate, my cousin and me. We didn't bring the five year old)
Another Clooney Movie. This one directed by Jason Reitman, who is on his way to collecting that little gold guy. Probably not this year, but some day, if he doesn't Michael Cimino himself in the foot.
Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham, a man who has made his life a shrine to efficiency and independence, to the extent that he needs nothing he can't fit in his carry on luggage, and no one other than his boss, via cell phone. Within the first three minutes you see why- Bingham's job is to fire people, all day everyday, all over the country, for companies who are afraid to do the dirty work themselves. He sits at a desk, in a suit and tie, and faces people at the moment when they feel they have lost everything- their purpose, their stability, their sense of self, and everything they have worked for for years, or in some cases, their whole lives. He sees people who have compromised every aspect of their lives for an anticipated payoff that turned out to be a swift kick in the ass.
Ryan protects himself from this miserable fate by traveling light, and staying in the air as much as possible. He doesn't fear loss because he has nothing to loose. His life is not tied up in material things- possessions, a home, even people. His success is measured in frequent flyer miles. Literally.
He has set a goal of ten million miles, and he would be only the seventh person to do it, which saves his place in posterity.
And this is a fine existence for him. Ryan is perfectly happy and fulfilled in his work and with his plans until he is grounded- again literally- and forced to come back down to earth and start dealing with people on an emotional level, which quickly becomes messy and complicated.
From here, this film could have easily strayed into cliche territory of the goal driven suit who stops to take a look around and realizes what he has been missing.
Instead, Up in the Air remains brutally honest about the realities of relationships, families, and getting involved in other people's business. There's a lot more to the story after the kiss at the altar, grand romantic gestures don't work out so well in real life, and getting involved often means getting hurt yourself, even when you did nothing wrong. People are frustratingly, confoundingly uncontrollable. They change, they make unreasonable demands, they have expectations. They can disappoint. Ten Million Frequent Flyer miles, however, are forever.
By the end, Ryan has of course been given the chance to reassess his situation, and reevaluate his goals, and decide if he has really been on the right path. And at that point, Up in the Air remains not very optimistic but still painfully sincere.
Jason Bateman has found an niche playing the Generic Inoffensive Corporate Drone lately, and his deadpan performance here as Bingham's boss is perfect. He plays a smart straight man to Clooney's fit-throwing hotshot. Vera Farminga (Scorcese's new infatuation) is elegant as the female version of Bingham, complete with her own ulterior motives for cultivating a relationship with the thinnest of connections, and reveals some of Bingham's surprising naivete towards the end.
And the soundtrack is phenomenal. Right on par with a good Wes Anderson film.
I might actually go see this one again.