Here are a few of the kinds of movies I wish that Hollywood made a lot more often (or maybe even two or three times a year): a romantic comedy that’s not just about situations but behavior, with two flawed and fascinating adults trying to figure out how to act around each other; a movie that connects to a large audience because it taps, in a rich and bold and immediate way, into the fears and anxieties of our time; a comedy in which the dialogue pings with wit and imagination and verve, yet without calling too much attention to itself (so that it doesn’t make your teeth hurt the way that Duplicity did); a movie that keeps surprising you because its characters keep surprising themselves.
The beauty of Up in the Air, the new film directed by Jason Reitman (Juno), is that it’s all those things at once. It’s also an indelibly personal movie. Adapted from a novel by Walter Kirn, Up in the Air nevertheless carries a pronounced link to Reitman’s first film, Thank You For Smoking (which premiered at Toronto in 2005), with its prankishly subversive tobacco-lobbyist hero. Only now Reitman is working with the polish of a master. In this new one, George Clooney plays a very similar kind of scoundrel, an executive efficiency expert whose entire job consists of jetting from one city to the next, planting himself in offices, and doing the dirty work of downsizing employees, telling each one, face to face, with a kind of eerie empathic dispassion, that they’re being let go, and that opportunities await, it’s really a beginning not an ending, here’s your severence packet, and blah blah blah. (He’s also a part-time motivational speaker, pepping up the very sorts of people he fires.)
This is not a job for anyone except a man who keeps his compassion firmly under control. Yet the most defining characteristic of Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is that he lives, quite literally, on the road, and loves it. He’s got a dozen passkeys to a dozen luxury VIP lounges, boutique rent-a-car deals, and high-end cookie-cutter hotels, and the fascination of the character is that since all of these corporate accomodations are essentially the same place, he really is at home in each one of them. He’s a pure product of the new America, an addict for an existence in which everything has become systematized. He’s also an addict for frequent-flyer miles, which he regards with an almost poetic, rather than just economic, aspiration (he’s out to collect a magically large number of them). Up in the air, or down on the ground, he’s quite happy being unattached to anyone or anything.
If anyone but George Clooney had played Ryan, we might not believe in (or like) him. But Clooney, with his cracklingly smart and debonair yet maybe slightly too polished surface, knows here, as he did in Michael Clayton, how to play a rogue who may be losing his soul but, in the eyes of the audience, holds on to it anyway. This is movie-star acting of the sort that no else today can bring off.
The “interviews” Ryan does with the folks he fires give you a chill. Reitman shuffles them, documentary-style, into montages of anger, confusion, righteousness, and naked terror, and I suspect that audiences will watch these sequences feeling as if the rug is being pulled out from under them (or could be). They’re a full-on vision of what’s going on in the country today, and Up in the Air is the rare movie that does justice to economic desperation by expressing it with an honest populist embrace. But even though Ryan is a messenger of doom, he’s no villain; no one in the movie is. Not even the fresh-faced corporate chipmunk (Anna Kendrick) who gets hired on at Ryan’s firm, and comes up with the “advanced” notion of doing away with their traveling-axman system, so that the firings, instead, can just take place over the Internet.
Suddenly, Ryan’s method looks positively benign, but since the airplane-happy Ryan also doesn’t want his lifestyle to end, he takes this naive young shill out on the road and shows her how downsizing with humanity is done. Kendrick is a fast-talking delight (she keeps showing you more layers), but there isn’t meant to be any romantic spark to their sparring. Ryan saves that for Alex, his sexy counterpart in corporate travel — and a role that, at long last, gives Vera Farmiga the chance to show off the sharp-eyed sensuality that makes her irresistable; she’s the homespun vixen next door. Clooney and Farmiga are fantastic together — Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell for the PowerPoint age. Up in the Air is light and dark, hilarious and tragic, bouncy and brainy, romantic and real. It’s everything that Hollywood has forgotten how to do, but we’re blessed that Jason Reitman has remembered it.
Clooney, a major presence in Toronto this year, also stars in The Men Who Stare at Goats. As one of the founding members of a crackpot military unit, he wears a mustache that makes him look like Dennis Farina, and he does his best to act cool, calm, and collected, which sets him in contrast to all the flakes and hysterics around him. The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of those over-the-top absurdist antiwar “satires” that inevitably gets compared to Dr. Strangelove, though a better comparison might be the fractious, madcap-incoherent film version of Catch-22. This new movie was directed by Grant Heslov (his first effort since Good Night, and Good Luck, his earlier collaboration with Clooney), but in this case “directed” is a charitable word. Telling the tall tale of a battalion of New Age paranormal soldiers who were trained, during Vietnam, to don cloaks of invisibility, kill goats with their minds, and generally turn war into a groovy thing, Heslov slaps gags together and never even begins to find a point of view. Performers like Jeff Bridges (in a ponytail) and Kevin Spacey (in the worst hairpiece of his career) show up and jabber as if locked in their own private acting classes, and Ewan McGregor, as the reporter who tags along with Clooney when the troop is revived to help fight the war in Iraq (see, it’s a topical movie!), looks about as lost as I felt. The audience I saw The Men Who Stare at Goats with ate it up, but I thought it was borderline unwatchable — a magical-realist sitcom war farce that ends up being about nothing but its own slovenly smugness.