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Clooney, Reitman hit new heights in “Up in the Air”

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) discovers life's better with company (Farmiga) in "Up in the Air."

Sit next to the sharply dressed Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) on a plane and he’d gladly unpack his carry-on of inspirational messages. You look like you need to talk, he’d say, and he’d be right because what traveler wouldn’t welcome a pleasant distraction from the crying babies, that pinging “fasten seatbelt” sign? Ryan Bingham is nothing if not an expert at diverting attention.

In truth, Ryan’s actually a professional distractor, though his business card proclaims his job title to be “termination consultant” or something similar in corporate speak. And in Jason Reitman’s witty, subtle and deeply felt “Up in the Air,” that’s just what Ryan does: fly around the country and distract people from reality — he’s firing them from their jobs because their bosses lack the guts — with chatter about new opportunities. The way he sees it, firings and layoffs translate into something valuable: the promise of motion. In fact, Ryan adopts “moving is living” as his credo of sorts. And Reitman structures “Up in the Air,” his witty, remarkably accomplished third film, around this mantra, not because he swallows it as gospel truth but because he understands how people can use — and abuse — the idea.

Ryan, played with maturity and grace by Clooney, deserves lifetime membership in the second group. The only time he sits still is on a plane. He lives out of compact suitcase, spending precious little time in his blank Omaha, Neb., apartment, and finds comfort in the sterility of rental cars and hotel suites. He believes he’s happy flitting from city to city, pushing toward a certifiably insane goal of 1 million frequent flyer miles, until two things happen to change his mind. Or, rather, two people happen. The first is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, divine as always), a bold and sexy corporate traveler who informs Ryan: “Think of me as you with a vagina.” She seems a saucy match for Ryan, and he enjoys her company so much he begins to question his in-flight lifestyle.

Second comes Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a cutthroat Cornell grad with big ideas about streamlining (i.e., taking it online) the process Ryan’s perfected. He’s horrified by her suggestion his methods are obsolete and takes her on the road, where she sees, really sees, that the printed names on a list belong to people. That’s hardly a novel concept, but pay close attention to Kendrick’s expression as she sits in on firing after firing. There are so many emotions — indifference, surprise, horror — at play on her face that Kendrick turns these moving scenes into an epiphany. Though the experience affects her profoundly, she’s too stubborn to admit it. But Ryan observes the change in her eyes, and what he sees makes him own up to a distasteful truth: he long ago stopped buying the platitudes he’s selling. Maybe he never did.

Gently observant films like this require strong writing and performances captivating enough to make us want to investigate, to unearth the subtleties.  In this regard, “Up in the Air” plays like Ensemble Acting 101; put simply, the acting is superb. Every actor, from those onscreen 10 minutes — Danny McBride injects humor as Ryan’s jittery future brother-in-law, while Melanie Lynskey, as Ryan’s estranged sister, radiates hope for reconciliation — to Clooney and Farmiga, rise to the challenge. Farmiga proves, as she did in “Down to the Bone” and “The Departed,” that she is an actress of exceptional warmth, and her chemistry with Clooney is palpable. Kendrick is a find, an actress possessed of the kind of talent that belies her 24 years; she makes us feel the sharp distress of her growing pains.

Turns as strong as these might lose steam without an achoring performance, and Clooney provides a measured but impressive one. He’s one of the rare actors who has allowed age to improve his talent. Clooney knows there’s more to Ryan than gimmicky speeches, and he hints at those depths with his changing eyes, his face, his body language. There were no shortcuts; he had to do some living to be ready for this performance. He did, he is and he finds good company in Reitman, who, with “Up in the Air,” has created the magnum opus of his young career and a snapshot of recession-era America. 

Grade: A

Top 10 actors/actresses of 2009

How many blog comments, I wonder, have inspired whole posts?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but the ever-astute Encore Entertainment posed a difficult but interesting question: Who gave the best performances, the ones that would top my list of favorites for the year?

Now that’s a thinker … but one that only lasted about six minutes. Then in marched the answers, and I present them to you thusly:

The ladies

Mo'Nique's blistering turn in "Precious" deserves to be called the best of the year.

  1. Mo’Nique, “Precious”
  2. Abbie Cornish, “Bright Star”
  3. Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”
  4. Melanie Laurent, “Inglourious Basterds” 
  5. Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”
  6. Melanie Lynskey, “The Informant!” 
  7. Isabella Rossellini, “Two Lovers”
  8. Vinessa Shaw, “Two Lovers”
  9. Charlyne Yi, “Paper Heart”
  10. Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”

The fellows

Christoph Waltz creates the perfect villain in "Inglourious Basterds."

  1. Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”
  2. Adam Sandler, “Funny People”
  3. George Clooney, “Up in the Air”
  4. Matt Damon, “The Informant!”
  5. Tobey Maguire, “Brothers”
  6. Joaquin Phoenix, “Two Lovers”
  7. Paul Schneider, “Bright Star”
  8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “(500) Days of Summer”
  9. Mark Ruffalo, “The Brothers Bloom”
  10. Zachary Quinto, “Star Trek”

Readers, which actors and actresses delivered the year’s best performances? Let’s hear your picks.

Crazy plot, performances elevate unfunny “Burn After Reading”

burnx

Richard Jenkins, Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt stumble upon some "top-secret CIA shit" in the Coen brothers' "Burn After Reading."

A note to the Coen brothers: There’s dry humor, and then there’s just … dryness.

Harsh words, perhaps, but true ones nonetheless: “Burn,” the brothers’ disappointing, largely unfunny follow-up to the flawless “No Country for Old Men,” lacks almost anything that resembles jokes or humor or anything, really, that might elicit more than a few half-hearted smirks. Gone are the zany but mostly on-target insights of The Dude; forgotten are the wild, surreal antics of H.I. McDunnough. What’s left is a whole mess of dry humor that likes, um, humor.

Still, that’s not to say “Burn After Reading” is a total wash. The over-the-top plot — which involves everything from cuckholding to murder to extortion — and a string stellar performances keep “Burn” from falling a notch or two below the Coen brothers’ mediocre “Intolerable Cruelty.”

Central to this convoluted, tangled mess of a plot is alcoholic misanthrope and ex-CIA agent Osbourne Cox (a pitch-perfect John Malkovich), who has decided to write a warts-and-all memoir as the ultimate “up yours” to the yes man (David Rasche) who fired him. But the disc containing Cox’s notes ends up on the floor of Hardbodies Gym, where two cheerfully moronic fitness instructors — Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) — scoop it up and decide to use it as part of a harebrained blackmail scheme. Litzke intends to use the money for an extreme body makeover (“I’ve gotten about as far as this body can take me,” she matter-of-factly informs her plastic surgeon), while Chad, hyped up on adrenaline and Jamba juice, is thrilled to be part of a plan involving “raw intelligence shit, CIA shit.”

Confused yet? Sit tight; things get even stickier when Linda meets jittery ex-Secret Service agent-turned-weirdo-inventor Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) through an online dating service. Sparks fly, but Harry’s not exactly a free agent: He’s “happily married,” and he has a longtime mistress (an icy, curt Tilda Swinton) who just so happens to be Cox’s disgruntled wife.

Rest assured that there is more, much more, but it will not be revealed here. Part of what limited fun there is in “Burn After Reading” comes from watching the brainless plots and subplots and sub-subplots collapse in on themselves like displaced Jenga blocks or explode with surprising force. All the characters are connected, but they’re all too self-absorbed or brainless to notice — a complete cluster of idiots. Not one of the characters appears to have a single redeeming quality, and so it’s easy to laugh when all the plans fall spectacularly apart.

Which is where the actors come in. With less capable peformers, these characters might seem too larger-than-life, or too one-sided to matter much. Not so in “Burn After Reading,” where a few Coen brothers regulars and newcomers do fine work. Malkovich, with his prickly humor and menacing grin, seems right at home, so much so that it’s a wonder this is his first Coen brothers outing. (He would have fit right in with the “Fargo” cast, eh?) Pitt has loads of fun as Chad, a vapid, gum-smacking fitness guru with nary a thought — original or otherwise — inside his frosted head. (His attempts to “sound official” while blackmailing Malkovich are comedy gold.)

Then come the unexpectedly poignant performances. McDormand, arguably the most underrated actress in Hollywood, hits all the right notes as Linda, a lonely woman whose determination to reinvent herself far exceeds her intelligence or perceptiveness. Her desire for companionship is heartbreaking. Clooney plays Harry as a paranoid, needy, emotionally unstable doofus, a man seeking real intimacy in a series of wham-bam-thank you ma’am flings. His emotional immaturity is infuriating but too human to ignore. What McDormand and Clooney do with these two characters is impressive.

How sad, though, that the same can’t be said of “Burn After Reading.” Next to inventive comedies like “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski,” the Coen brothers’ saltine-dry effort feels phoned in.

Grade: B-