Two days after another George Clooney film screened at the Savannah Film Festival -- The Men Who Stare At Goats -- another film starring the actor was the Festival's super-secret "Director's Choice."
Directed by Jason Reitman and based on Walter Kim's novel, Up in the Air is the hilarious, affecting, and perfectly timed story, sociopolitically speaking, of Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a traveling mercenary of sorts who works for the euphemistically named Career Transition Center. What the company does, of course, is lay off people in huge numbers in America's recessionary economy, generally for companies too cowardly and/or inequipped to handle the job themselves.
To that end, Bingham criss-crosses the country at the behest of his boss, played by Jason Bateman (sample line: "These are terrible times for America. Ladies and gentlemen, this is our moment.") While Bingham takes no pleasure in firing people -- quite the contrary, he has real compassion for his victims -- his real purpose in life as the film begins is to be one of a handful of people in the world to amass ten million frequent flyer miles.
Change comes to Bingham's commitment-averse life in the form of two women. One is Alex, played by Vera Farmiga (of The Departed fame), who is, in her words, exactly like Bingham "except with a vagina." The second is Natalie (Anna Kendrick), initially brought in to revolutionize the termination business by using, you guessed it, the internet, but who is changed by her familiarization trip around the midwest with Bingham -- firing folks right and left all along the way.
Reitman wisely passes up any number of cheap cliches -- indeed, one of the film's great achievements is in studiously avoiding the obvious plot twists that seem inevitable from the beginning. The script's humor is adult in form, very verbal yet also quite visceral in its maturity and its ability to weave humor with some reasonably sage observation.
The cinematography and set design are also outstanding in the film, from the gorgeous and evocative aerial shots of midwestern topography -- symbolizing Bingham's life aloft flying from city to city -- as well as the marvelously real set pieces in mid-level hotel ballrooms in Flyover Country.
But it's the acting that really sets the film apart, whether it's Bateman's perfect take on the typical full-of-crap "new media" obsessed manager or the many actual recent layoff victims more or less portraying themselves. Clooney in particular does outstanding work that is orders of magnitude above some of his more glib portrayals (Ocean's Eleven, cough, cough). The scene where he is delivered an unexpected wicked emotional blow from one of the women in his life contains what may be his best, most believable work.
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