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'Up in the Air': Its quality? Sublime. Its super-low budget? Priceless!

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The standard joke to make about a movie with a very low budget is that its entire cost could have provided the catering budget for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen/2012/fill-in-your-famously- overpriced-blockbuster-here. (In the case of Paranormal Activity, you could refine the joke to: Its budget would barely cover the cost of one of those movies’ craft-services tables, minus the food.) I’m not sure if the joke quite works with Up in the Air. It might be a bit of an exaggeration to claim that its entire budget would have covered, say, the catering costs for Avatar. Nevertheless, Up in the Air was made for a shockingly small amount of money: just $25 million. It’s no great stretch to say that within the values of today’s movie industry, that’s less than cheap. That’s chump change.

Forget the usual, bloated, golden-price-tag summer-movie decadence; Up in the Air barely even qualifies as a mid-budget movie. (That range would be closer to $40-60 million.) When you consider the A-list talent involved — Jason Reitman, director of the indie mega-smash Juno, and George Clooney, one of the last true movie stars in Hollywood — that makes the film, financially speaking, a rather astonishing feat. The reason I dote on the budget is that Up in the Air is such an exquisitely conceived and executed dramatic comedy that it stands as a shining example of something: At a time when Hollywood, for all its profit, is quaking in its economic boots over The Future (the transition to digital, the competition from rival media, the siphoning off of home viewers), the movie demonstrates, loudly and clearly, what can be done for a relatively minor, almost throwaway amount of money. What can be done? In a word, miracles.

It’s important to acknowledge that any movie that stars George Clooney and has a total budget of $25 million is probably one in which he agreed, in essence, to take a pay cut. And, of course, the real — and often understated — budget demon in Hollywood isn’t filmmaking costs, it’s marketing costs. Nevertheless, it speaks volumes about the kind of filmmaker Jason Reitman is that he realized he could make this movie for peanuts. I don’t just mean that he’s a wizard at keeping costs down. What’s reflected in that budget is a kind of philosophy, an understanding that the real magic of movies — the magic that’s been lost, over time, by Hollywood — is to be found in precisely those elements that aren’t necessarily expensive: getting the script exactly right; letting the drama emerge out of logistically simple “small” moments, because that’s what real human drama is, and always will be; inspiring your actors to work with no muss and no fuss, because it brings them out at their spontaneous and playful and surprising best.

I guess what I’m saying is that Jason Reitman, by making a movie that recalls some of the effortlessly polished and, at the same time, deeply funny and humane films of the studio-system era, has also brought back a welcome touch of their discipline. If more filmmakers and studios followed his example, then we might have more movies like Up in the Air. I guess what I’m saying is that Hollywood might just produce more art if it figured out that art could actually be a bargain.