Jason Reitman's new movie Up in the Air is a movie that's hard to dislike, though it may be hard to adore. It's glossy and slick, with a smooth but unsatisfied George Clooney (like so many others he's played, from Michael Clayton, rating: 77, to Out of Sight, rating: 95) by turns debonair and aware of his own shallowness. He's a 21st-century libertine who winds up endorsing 20th-century family values of loyalty and commitment. It's a conventional movie -- but a hell of a good one.
At this point, 32-year old Jason Reitman hasn't made quite as many good movies as his father Ivan, who co-produced this film, but he is assuredly a better director. Each one of Jason's first three -- Thank You for Smoking (rating: 80), Juno (rating: 75), and now this one -- has been a winner. Even Ivan's best movies (like Ghostbusters, rating: 84 and Dave, rating: 85) had a genial, shambling quality, a reliance on a comic lead like Bill Murray to generate most of the laughs, and featured only indifferent camerawork. Unlike his father, Jason has a visual signature of his own: glossy elegance with snappy edits of repetitive tasks for a quick visual shorthand, a comedic tone punctuated by moments of dramatic soul-searching for the protagonists. Like Judd Apatow, he also favors an updated, almost snarky take on conventional morality, though his films are populated by charmers rather than schlubs.
Like in Michael Clayton, George Clooney plays a hired gun, a subcontractor whom firms hire to handle their layoffs. He goes from city to city, anonymous boardroom to anonymous boardroom, telling people not to take it personally, to look at the severance package they're being offered, and absorbs the first brunt of their rage and sadness before flying off to the next victim. He cultivates a life free of connections: his home is in the air, and his acquaintances are as disposable as the airplane mini-liquor bottles he keeps in his apartment fridge at the apartment he rarely sleeps in. He gives seminars on cutting burdens out of life, and flies around training a new girl at his firm in exactly how he practices the art of letting people down gently. But predictably, as soon as he meets the perfect woman, he realizes that he would like some permanence in his life.
The movie understandably sounds a lot more like Thank You for Smoking, another book adaptation for which Reitman wrote the screenplay, than the overwrought Juno. But the characters are fundamentally similar. (And a lot of the same faces turned up in Juno and Up in the Air, including J.K. Simmons and Jason Bateman.) Reitman has shown a remarkable maturity within his comfort zone, but he hasn't yet ventured outside it. It'll be interesting to see what he does next.
Crossposted on Remingtonstein.