Up in the Air (Reitman, 2009)

Flying high above the ground, the vast American landscape looks serenely majestic even during our most trying times. The opening credits of Jason Reitman’s Up In the Air juxtapose horizons of massive cityscapes with perfectly symmetrical fields, plains, and waterways. These omniscient views represent home sweet home for Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a charming corporate shark traveling the country firing employees for weak-willed companies. Bingham’s serpentine work ethic and isolationist code rely on constant forward momentum, staying one step ahead of emotional commitment to mentally survive. In this current economic crisis, Bingham’s business is booming, and Reitman makes a point to insert worker testimonials to properly contextualize the film. It’s just one of the many aesthetic decisions heightened for maximum thematic effect.

Of course Up In The Air would not exist without the prospect of Bingham experiencing personal change and redemption. His professional creed gets challenged partially due to shifting business tactics and technologies, but more substantially after a chance meeting with Alex (Verma Farmiga), his female equal. While most of the film postures as a keenly aware statement about the social consequences of this down economy, Up In the Air develops Ryan and Alex’s sublime relationship with ease. Clooney and Farmiga tap into a wonderful improvisational acting style, leading the viewer down a road of unexpected emotional expression, only to derive something far more powerful, timely, and forlorn in the end. Their gracefully fleeting moments together represent the growing disconnect between romantic perception and reality.

If Up In the Air feels entirely polished, it’s more a blessing than a curse (as opposed to Reitman’s two other films) since the visuals perfectly compliment Ryan’s structured elitism. Thankfully, Reitman understands the most important element connecting both Bingham and the countless workers he fires – the ability to evolve. And so the film fluidly taps into America’s current desperation without seeming heavy-handed. But Reitman’s talent at constructing complex character interactions only takes these themes so far, and beyond Bingham’s deeply personal conflict this American landscape feels particularly black and white, especially straight-forward. Those critics praising Up In the Air as a landmark of cinematic poignancy must see an invisible depth in even the most familiar moments.

While Up In the Air might not be the social Goliath its supporters think it to be, Clooney’s tragic performance is something to behold, delving deep into a well of melancholy and regret. As Bingham’s exterior confidence slowly crumbles and his dapper Dan attitude falters, Clooney’s body begins to slightly slouch, his eyes occasionally avoid contact, sure signs of a man coming to grips with his own insignificance. Even though Reitman reserves plenty of reflexive hope for Bingham and the American worker in general, his film lives and breathes with an unspoken heartache collectively drifting through the rarefied air. In these subtle moments of indecision and remorse, Up In the Air turns transcendent, if only for fleeting moments before descending back to the depths of convention.

Juno (Reitman, 2007)

I wonder if this film’s detractors realize it’s just a beautiful slice of fantasy and not some realist take on teenage pregnancy? At least Juno has the guts to center a vibrant coming of age story around a strong, vulnerable, and smart young woman (Ellen Page in a great performance), unlike Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up which is primarily concerned with the male ego in terms of female expectations. Sure, the script goes uber hipster at times and the quirkiness overwhelms the senses, but the genuine heart beating underneath the gloss is something to cherish. Just look at the final shot where Juno and Bleeker perform a duet on his front porch. There’s a somber longing to this moment ripe with subtext and substance and worthy of further anaylsis.

Thank You For Smoking (Reitman, 2005)

Fun, well crafted satire of a tobacco lobbyist whose path towards redemption is not your run of the mill coming of age story. Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, a motor mouth for big tobacco whose life begins to unravel as he gets more and more immersed in the double-speak of big business. His evolving relationship with his son, played by Cameron Bright provides the core of the story. I can’t say the film floored me in any one area, but as a safe, tidy Hollywood pat on the back it’s entertaining. A little too flashy for my taste, but I can’t fault director Jason Reitman for pulling out all the stops for his first shot at one-upping his dad Ivan. Still, great satires like Network have meaningful tension and bite, and Thank You For Smoking has neither.