Yes, I know we usually focus on foreign films and indies, but sometimes you just have to join the Big Parade. Truthfully, it’s impossible to see Up in the Air (especially after sitting through It’s Complicated) and not jump up and down a little. The two are likely contenders for domestic Oscars, and have already been nominated for a handful. But one is a slick, clever, fantasy about middle-aged white women in a squeaky-clean community far, far from the real world. The other is a slick, clever, clear-eyed and probing look at how we live today—and it’s definitely unsanitary.
Our central problem at the moment is the economy, and the way in which we are cast off like so much garbage when it’s in a slump (unless we’re running banks or hedge funds and receiving obscene bonuses for having generated the slump in the first place).
The most outstanding thing about Up in the Air (and there are many) is how stylishly it deals with this problem, without in any way minimizing its terrible pain. You could simply say It’s Complicated is all surface; Up in the Air is surface with a beating heart in the midst of a seizure. It makes its points economically; locations are set up by aerial shots with simple graphic IDs; the hero’s moves are an efficient and impersonal ballet méchanique as he prepares for the next flight to carnage. And the carnage itself is played out by real people who have actually lost their jobs. The cuts are quick, but to the bone.
Director/writer Jason Reitman (son of legendary Hollywood director Ivan Reitman) has made a brilliant film. It’s better than his recent Juno, but a logical next step for such a talent. His genius for pungent dialogue and spectacular editing (every single cut is in exactly the right place—not one frame too early, not one frame too late) gives the film its loft and energy. But Reitman goes all that even one better: he casts like God at the wheel (there are no mistakes) and charms amazing performances out of pros like George Clooney (never better), the quirky and wonderful Vera Farmiga, and—wow, oh wow—out of newcomer Anna Kendrick, who explodes with surprises and virtuoso tics, while looking spookily like Tom Cruise’s younger sister. Her relationship with Clooney (and Farmiga) is one of the freshest and most original you’ll see.
As for It’s Complicated: Much has been made of the newest chapter in Nancy Meyer’s lock on the branded fantasy-world saga. She is surely an obsessive craftsman who runs a tight ship, who knows her actors and her audience, and especially how to rack up impressive profit margins. But Reitman is just as obsessive and also goes far beyond her with a bullseye in the universal human condition department that no one can surpass. His film flits by, while digging deep. It’s an odd and irresistible combination that stays in your head and keeps you thinking about its message, as well as its characters .
Catch this before it leaves town! Its focus on the real toll of the war in Iraq, and now Afghanistan—the distraught families who learn that their sons/husbands/fathers have been killed—is disturbing, but required viewing for adults capable of reflection. Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster play a strategic team under orders to deliver the bad news in person. What they see as they travel the country reveals, like Up in the Air, the hard truths of 2010: the terrible anguish of its victims in brief, telling strokes. They stay with you in The Messenger, too. But Foster’s coiled spring of a veteran, all fury and tenderness, deserves special recognition, big-time.
Never have so many stars worked so hard for so little. The cast is weighted with A-list goddesses, mostly bumping, grinding, and acting-out strenuous sexual fantasies to a raucous soundtrack: Sophia Loren, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotilliard, Kate Hudson, and Fergie, (the singer, not the princess). Although it’s presumably the story of a man in desperate search of a muse to inspire his film, the truth is that Daniel Day-Lewis is the real-life muse for all his ladies. He tries manfully to do the right thing, racing to and fro from bed to bed, even singing acceptably. But his furtive scuttle is more reminiscent of Jean-Louis Trintignant’s in The Conformist than Marcello Mastroianni’s in 8½. (Perhaps it’s guilt for having been roped into this overheated stew?) All is forgiven, though, in the last number: a stunning panorama of the entire cast on several levels of a soon-to-be-demolished movie set. And guess what: even in that Olympian company, Judi Dench sings, and simply blows it all right out of the theater.