“Up in the Air” is a timely film. Interspersed with the plight of a narcissistic hired-to-fire frequent flyer named Ryan Bingham are sobering portraits of actual folks discarded during this current economic maelstrom. The movie also has a timeless quality. Based on Walter Kim’s 2001 novel, the crisply clever screenplay by director Jason Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner addresses universal themes which bubble up when one re-evaluates life’s priorities as a cog in the capricious corporate rat race. Reitman’s third feature — following “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno” — is a contemporary and classic story told with smarts and deft comedy, both light and dark. He makes films which may be a bit too varnished – with protagonists whose slick dialogue obfuscates as well as entertains – but they are confident and observant projects while perhaps not as penetrating or poignant as they first appear.
Bingham (George Clooney) works for a company, Career Transition Counseling, which is hired by businesses too scared to do their own firing. It’s his dream job; Bingham is, eerily, perfectly suited psychologically to his profession; he has an almost Zen-like ability to sit serenely across the table from the crushed and wounded. (Withering outbursts are delivered by both professional actors, and non-actors who lost their jobs in the recession and were hired by Reitman for these roles.) Bingham appears to have a personality which can experience the wrenching angst without taking it onboard; he’s like an emotional Sky Miles loofah.
A bachelor in his 40s, he loves his itinerant life. Bingham dashes through a pampered life soaking up daily thanks at ticket counters and checkout desks. Contrary to the vast majority of sane individuals, he adores airports. He logs 322 days on the road and “43 miserable days at home” in an Omaha apartment so antiseptically unscathed it appears to be inhabited by the world’s dullest monk. During one of his Admirals Club layovers, he meets a fellow addicted business traveler, played by Vera Farmiga. They engage in a high-stakes card game, flinging credit cards and reward cards of ever increasing status in a sassy and flirtatious riposte. They’re turned on by this elite game of Snap. Farmiga plays Alex Goran with bravado reminiscent of Rosalind Russell.
But perhaps this is apropos as Clooney is as close as we have in modern American film to the Hollywood star of the 1940s and 1950s; he’s like William Holden, but with more sincerity. With charming crow’s feet creasing his face with every rakish smile, Clooney is so consummately good looking that he appears to have a full mouth even though his upper lip has the slim definition of a cigarette case. In a year when he’s produced outstanding work – the wicked comic mania of Lyn Cassady in the unfairly maligned “The Men Who Stare at Goats” and crafty voiceover work as the titular “Fantastic Mr. Fox” – his performance as Ryan Bingham rounds off the decade in style.
The tranquility of Bingham’s nomadic modus vivendi – which could be dubbed “Ryan Air” — is jettisoned by the influence of a tightly-wound upstart named Natalie Keener (the commendable Anna Kendrick), who impresses her CTC bosses with a radical company overhaul combining cost cutting with modern technology. A recent Ivy League graduate, Natalie has devised a business plan with the painfully forced amalgamation of the words global and local: “Glocal.” This means that the firings will be done remotely from Nebraska. Desperate and defiant, Ryan takes Natalie along on a road trip. Natalie’s presence initiates in Ryan a slowly gestating process of reassessment. (In a nice touch, it’s not Natalie’s example which directly leads to Ryan’s contemplation.) He begins to think about relationships and family. He ponders the hollowness of his life and a facile side gig as a motivational speaker. The treatment of his predicament is believable and bolstered by Clooney’s strong bearing, even if, at times, the scenes, especially during a visit to his hometown for his sister’s wedding, feel cursory. As his protégé, of a sort, Kendrick delivers a nicely nuanced performance. Natalie is driven professionally, but retains a likable innocence, admitting to Ryan and Alex during a confessional conversation in an airport terminal that she desires the type of man who the “only thing he loves more than me is his Golden Lab.” But the character of Natalie is too young to be sympathetic. Feeling sorry for her, especially in this economy, doesn’t seem appropriate. And the film bears the smooth sheen of a James L. Brooks film. “Up in the Air” is worth checking out even if Reitman fashions a movie whose title could very well sum up a viewer’s ambiguity.
“Invictus” is a solid film from the prodigious Clint Eastwood mounted on a stunning central performance from Morgan Freeman. The story scans the brief time between Nelson Mandela’s release from prison on February 11, 1990, to the summer of 1995, when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup. The vast majority of the film covers the even more narrow period between Mandela’s inauguration as president in May 1994 to the final match in June 1995. The new leader envisions South Africa’s hosting of the illustrious sporting event as an invaluable component towards the “reconciliation” of the new “Rainbow Nation.” Eastwood quickly captures the simultaneous moods of expectancy and trepidation in a land of fractious race relations. Into this unenviable, volatile cauldron, Mandela steps with graceful determination.
The film is firmly centered on the phenomenal performance by Freeman as Nelson Mandela. Freeman avoids caricature, which would have been occurred if he’d adopted Mandela’s distinctive, pinched speaking voice. Instead he provides the audience with an experience more impressive and profound than mimicry. It’s not an impersonation, it’s an embodiment. His Mandela, as appears to be the case in actuality, is strong and humble. Freeman portrays Mandela as regal but approachable, opinionated but free of haughtiness. He is inspirational and influential but not dominating, let alone domineering. Mandela gains esteem from both supporters and opponents through the sincere melding of actions and words. (One of the films best sequences chronicles how Mandela appeals to a newly created South African sports council to support the Spingboks, the national rugby side historically symbolic of the apartheid system. To attest to the cultural resistance, in June 1994, black South Africans avidly cheered for England in a match held in South Africa.) When he utters “Forgiveness liberates the soul” to a revolutionary comrade in his integrated security detail, it doesn’t sound like new age twaddle but as a reasoned belief bred by 27 imprisoned years, years counseled by the words of the poem by the late 19th century poet William Earnest Henley which Mandela kept on a scrap of paper during his incarceration and from which the film takes its title. “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul,” the poem concludes. As presented by Freeman, the extraordinary Mandela does not come across as a mythic figure. Instead he exemplifies an honorable, heroic everyman. (As befitting a self-effacing everyman, he is fallible: the film hints at the difficulties that the father of a country faces in his own family life.)
For a sports film, the thrilling match reenactments are well constructed. Matt Damon bulks up admirably to authentically play Francois Pienaar, the triumphant South African captain whose own father initially despises and mocks Mandela. Damon, looking nothing like his pudgy pencil pusher in “The Informant!,” compliments Freeman in a decidedly secondary, but crucial role. The script by Anthony Peckham from John Carlin’s non-fiction account avoids cliché. The soundtrack, however, is not so lucky. In several instances, a scene is undercut by a hideous pop song. But the soundtrack is the only contentious element in a proficient motion picture propelled by a history lesson modern and eternal.