It's not that Reitman's third film, following "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno," is outright disappointing. On the contrary, "Up in the Air" has vivid characters, fine performances, and a timely, good-humored recession-oriented story. In short, I agree with most of the praise the film has garnered, so why do I have this inclination to shrug it off as merely 'good?' I think because it simply failed to surprise me. So in the interest of salvaging the opinions of future viewers, I intend to part with as few hard details as can be spared in the following paragraphs. I hope for this analysis to be the perfect mediation between your expectations and what is often a frank and charming, if formulaic, comedy.
The pieces are all in place. You know what to expect from a George Clooney performance, and with "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox" still playing theatrically, you needn't look far if not. He plays Ryan Bingham, a jet-setting corporate lay-off guru whose cherished lifestyle is threatened when an overeager young businesswoman (Anna Kendrick) devises a revolutionary video-conferencing system that will allow Bingham to work from the last place he would ever want to--home. The screenplay presents a straightforward, nearly transparent story, which is fortunately vitalized by the likes of Clooney and his love interest (Vera Farmiga), under the amiable sway of Reitman's direction. The narrative rigidity jiggers with the pacing later on the film, however, with false endings and climaxes that betray the structure of the rest of it. But unlike the Coens' "A Serious Man," which easily shoulders a jackknife narrative that keeps its audience entertained and guessing, "Up in the Air" doesn't feel like a deliberate build, it feels, maybe appropriately, lost.
Regardless, to harp only on its structural shortcomings is to ignore the film's most important aspect: its timeliness. As a cinematic snapshot of 2009, nothing else really comes close, and that's a big reason why it's a front-runner on so many best-of lists, my own (probably) included. What does it mean to lose your job? What does it mean when the guy who told you that you lost your job might lose his job? These are the themes scratching below the surface of "Up in the Air," but which unfortunately never penetrate in any immediately meaningful way. Rather, they render the film a shorthand for our recession, our attitudes, and our relationships now.
Ironically, it gets to a point where I have to agree that this is the film to beat come oscar season. I'd like to say that slathering it with superlatives on the merits of cultural relevance alone would be like giving "Crash" an Oscar just for addressing racism. But oh, wait.
It isn't just social context that makes "Up in the Air" look like a best picture to-be. Like 2007's "No Country for Old Men," or 2008's "Slumdog Millionaire," Oscar will love Jason Reitman's latest because it's a safe, inoffensive choice. I'm gonna go ahead and call it. It's not as violent as "Inglourious Basterds" or as contentedly anti-commercial as "A Serious Man," and though I would not be so pretentious as to suggest any of the above winners are unworthy of consideration in a discussion of great film (except "Crash"), the important, polarizing masterpieces that challenge convention are rarely, if ever, afforded cinema's highest honor. It's the broad strokes of vague emotion and unanimous praise, however reserved, that means pay dirt.
"Up in the Air" is a perfectly fine film, well above average, smartly cast, and consistently enjoyable. It never sticks more than a trembling finger outside of the box, but does well with an established formula in painting a postcard of America at its least assured.
I wouldn't call it a great film, but it's a significant one, and one I fully expect to hear read aloud this coming March 7th. But then again, it has one last chance to surprise me.