Never mind, for a minute, the fact that we Santa Barbarans have a vested emotional interest in the career of director Jason Reitman, son of longtime Santa Barbara movieman Ivan. Reitman the Younger has wowed the movie cosmos with his now three-for-three, jewel-encrusted filmography-Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and his best yet, Up in the Air.
Up in the Air is one of the clear prizes of the 2009 American movie crop, and partly because it so deftly juggles matters of genre self-definition. Is it a comedy, a tragedy, a mid-life crisis wake-up saga? All of the above, and with a subplot more stinging than originally intended, it also hits home in post-recession America. George Clooney plays a man on the move, traveling through airports with balletic grace and lusting after the coveted 10 million frequent-flyer miles, who works as an outside party hired to fire-to inform employees that their “position is no longer available.” He is, to put it euphemistically, a “transition specialist.” “Hit man” is another apt job description. But Clooney’s character, described by women in his midst as “a cocoon of self-banishment” and “a parenthesis,” is self-insulated against over-empathizing with his victims.
Up in the Air is based on the novel by the wise and wise-guyish writer Walter Kirn, whose irreverent storytelling gift is similar to the one Reitman has presented so far in his career. The story moves quickly, by definition, around America. It opens with, and returns to, montages of the reactions of those fired, inserting a layer of genuine compassion amid the comic twists and flirtatious interludes (with fellow traveler Vera Farmiga). With this film, Clooney has an ideal foil for his talents. Clooney’s handsome swagger and devil-may-care savvy only goes so far, by design, in a tale of transformation and late-breaking maturation in which our swinger hero faces life beyond his “empty backpack” theory of living.
Chalk up another dazzler for Reitman. Allegations of nepotism for this Son of Ivan are moot: If family business connection got him in the door, his lofty spot was earned through intelligence, artistry, and flair for hip-yet-accessible comedy with social commentary tucked in the margins.