Up in the Air (Paramount Pictures, R)

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film_up-in-the-air_sm.jpgA track record like Reitman's inspires nothing but goodwill and lust for more films of a similar standard of quality.

 

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1993 saw the release of King of the Hill, the third feature film by the then-hot young director Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape, Kafka). King of the Hill was of particular importance to we St. Louisans, as it was the rare feature film that was shot here; even rarer still is the fact that it turned out to be quite a good movie.

And now here we are 16 years later, finally getting a suitable locally shot film to compare King of the Hill to: Up in the Air, the third feature film by hot young director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno). Anticipation for Up in the Air has been maybe only marginally higher here than it has been in the rest of the country, and rightfully so; although his career so far has been brief, a track record like Reitman's inspires nothing but goodwill and lust for more films of a similar standard of quality.

Of a similar standard of quality Up in the Air is, thankfully for both we River City folk and moviegoers in general. Again Reitman's protagonist is one who would be rather unsavory in someone else's hands, like Thank You for Smoking's pro-smoking lobbyist Nick Naylor or Juno's pregnant teen Juno MacGuff. This time it's Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a man who flies around the country as an axe-man for hire: Companies hire him to come in and fire employees when they're too spineless to do it themselves. As portrayed by Reitman and Clooney, Bingham is a pragmatist, one who favors the constant travel and little to no positive human interaction required of his job, and who is often quite inspired at pointing out the silver lining to the newly spurned.

Things get complicated for Clooney when two women are introduced to his life. One is a professional named Alex (The Departed's Vera Farmiga, one of the more poised actresses to crop up in the past several years), whose lifestyle and philosophy so closely mirror Bingham's it's hard to imagine them not being together. The other, Natalie (Anna Kendrick, Bella's friend Jessica from the Twilight series), is a severe young woman hired onto Bingham's firm as an efficiency expert, to whom Bingham has to show the ropes. These two women in his life makes Bingham (and, in turn, the audience) reassess his stance toward commitments of all kinds, and it all comes to a head when he has to attend his sister's wedding.

While sometimes feeling like a blatant Oscar grab, there is much to recommend about Up in the Air, not the least of which is its cast. The aforementioned trio of Clooney, Farmiga and Kendrick are uniformly excellent in their roles (which is unsurprising from everyone except maybe Kendrick), but even the supporting roles are filled it expertly by a combination of professionals whose faces you'll recognize and either non-professionals or local actors whose faces you'll perhaps recognize because they live within a 25-mile radius of you. Both J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis amusingly turn up as people Bingham has to fire, and Jason Bateman smarmily plays Bingham's boss. The local actors and actresses cast as people who get fired are all too believable as well, probably because Reitman actually cast locals who had recently lost their jobs and had them recount their stories for the film. This minor touch adds a lot of weight to a film that could hardly be timelier, given today's economy.

In this regard, it's hard to imagine a better film to have been shot here. Aside from St. Louis coming off well as a city in the script itself, Reitman goes out of his way to portray us affectionately, and to fill his big cast of small characters with worthwhile local actors. Here's hoping the trend of getting (preferably good) films shot here is one that picks up soon; I don't want to have to wait another 16 years for the next one. | Pete Timmermann

 

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