Since this blog was founded five years ago, no new filmmaker has impressed me more than Jason Reitman. Reitman, the son of the noted director Ivan Reitman, proved beyond a doubt that he was a formidable talent in his own right with his charming feature debut “Thank You for Smoking” (2005), for which he should have received a best adapted screenplay Oscar nomination. Then, two years later, he blew me away with his enchanting follow-up “Juno” (2007), which brought him a well-deserved best director Oscar nod. Now, two years after that, he is back with his third, “Up in the Air,” which is unlike anything he’s done before.
Whereas “Smoking” cost $6.5 million and “Juno” came in at $7.5 million, “Up in the Air” had a $30 million budget. Whereas “Smoking” and “Juno” were independently financed and then distributed/marketed by indie specialist Fox Searchlight, “Air” was commissioned and is now being handled by the oldest Hollywood studio of all, Paramount. And whereas “Smoking” and “Juno” were built around true ensembles headed up by solid but at the time little-known indie actors Aaron Eckhart and Ellen Page, respectively, “Air” is an unabashed vehicle for perhaps the biggest Hollywood movie star of all, George Clooney. Needless to say, the result is a very different kind of movie. I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way… just as I don’t necessarily mean it in a good one.
Many of my fellow Oscar bloggers who saw “Up in the Air” in Telluride and Toronto instantly declared it a masterpiece and among the top best picture contenders. I wonder how much of that is genuine and how much of it is the result of the echo-chamber within which we operate — within seconds of a new film ending, the race is on to be the first to react to it on Twitter, Facebook, and our blogs, and once the first opinions are out there it becomes increasingly intimidating for others to disagree. As for myself? Nearly a week after seeing the film, I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the film, both on a personal level and in terms of its awards prospects.
Here’s what I know:
- It tackles timely subjects (job-loss, unemployment, and how we communicate today — or don’t) and captures the cultural zeitgeist (fear and anger about the uncertainties of a changing world) in much the same way as the last two best picture winners “No Country for Old Men” (the hopelessness of the end of the Bush-era) and “Slumdog Millionaire” (the hopefulness of the beginning of the Obama-era). In other words, it may just be the right film at the right moment.
- Its central performance can be sold as “bravely” self-reflexive. Just as awards campaigners harped on the fact that “The Wrestler” was as much about Mickey Rourke as it was about Randy “The Ram,” expect them to remind you early and often that Clooney showed a lot of guts by taking on a character not unlike himself — a high-flying, wealthy, witty, seemingly-contented bachelor who has elected to maintain few emotional or material ties to others — and honestly acknowledging the benefits and downsides of such a lifestyle.
- It’s meant as an allegory for the lack of face-to-face communication in today’s society — Web sites, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter bring us closer together but also drive us further apart — but the notion that a company would hire someone (especially a highly-paid specialist like Clooney’s character) to fire someone (especially low-pay employees like many who are canned in the film) — even if some actually do — sounds fairly absurd, particularly when it’s not even going to be done in-person. Most small businesses could never afford to use such a service and most big corporations have never had a problem doing it themselves.
- The character Natalie (played by the talented up-and-comer Anna Kendrick), who is meant to be grating, is at times too grating — as Variety noted in its review, “You can’t wait for her comeuppance.” Also, the backpack metaphor is hammered home a bit too hard.
- Like Reitman’s previous films, it is aesthetically stunning. Credit for this should be shared among Reitman, his regular cinematographer Eric Steelberg, and his regular editor Dana Glauberman, as well as whoever captured the incredible overhead shots of American cities that are interspersed throughout the film (and which were shot specifically for it).
Make of those feelings what you will. All I know is that as much as I like a lot of the people associated with this film — and I really do like them a lot — I am not prepared to declare it “the lead contender to win the 2009 Best Picture Oscar,” as one notable blogger wrote today and others have been insinuating since Telluride. Earlier this week, Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone asked me if I thought the Best Picture race could now be declared over. As I replied at the time: “I have a Crash-ing suspicion it’s never over ’til it’s actually over… or at least until Clint Eastwood sings!”
Photo: Anna Kendrick and George Clooney in “Up in the Air.” Credit: Paramount.
Related: Check out my interviews with Reitman about “Thank You for Smoking” and with Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody about “Juno”