One From Jason Reitman: Up in The Air

A life without many, if any, emotional attachments seems like an appealing lifestyle to many, especially for those who are ever so career minded. To not have to worry about kids because you don’t have any, and to not get involved in serious relationships with others leaves you with a lot of room to breathe in. But what happens when something comes along to shatter the façade of this lifestyle? Will you be able to handle it without reverting to your old ways? Will it make you realize just how lonely a person you truly are to where you have no idea how to alleviate this permanent state of solitude you are stuck in? One thing’s for sure, this kind of life is not meant to last forever, and eventually you will be greeted with an unexpected awakening. Hugh Grant got to play a character who lived this kind of like in “About A Boy,” and George Clooney came to play a similar one in Jason Reitman’s brilliant film, “Up in The Air.”

Based on the 2001 novel by Walter Kim, Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man whose job is to travel all over the country to corporate offices to lay off employees. Companies hire people like Ryan so that their bosses can easily squirm their way out of this depressing part of the job (pussies). What he does feels a bit similar to the sad duty military officers or police officers have in telling families their husbands, wives or long-lost relatives have died. While Ryan is not informing anyone of a dead family member, the people on the receiving end don’t really react all much differently. Still, he sees his job as a service as he tries to make them see this is not the end, but simply the beginning of a new life. In addition, he also conducts conferences where he talks about “emptying the backpack” of attachments and things you don’t really need. Hence, the backpack is clearly symbolic of his life at this point for there is not much of anything inside of it.

The perks of this unappealing job? Well, it does allow him to travel on airplanes for over 300 days out of the year. He does have a puny one-bedroom apartment back in Omaha, Nebraska, but he is barely there. For him, the airports and airplanes feel like his real home, so his address truly is up in the air. Still, he has the same problem those seriously addicted to social media have; a serious fear of human contact. They say they don’t want any personal attachments in life, but it speaks of some deeper fear they may not be aware of consciously.

Clooney gave one of his very best performances in this film, and he has always been great at playing the world-weary man who has seen just about everything. From a distance, this almost seems like a walk in the park for him as this movie’s trailers have him flashing that famous grin of his every five minutes. But he brings a real depth to a really well written character, and despite the fact he plays a man none of us would want to meet ever, he makes Ryan Bingham likable and very sympathetic.

Ryan ends up capturing the attention of another corporate employee who spends more time in the air than in the office, Alex Goran. She is played by Vera Farmiga, and she is as great in the role as she is seriously sexy! The first scene between these two reminded me so much of the scene in “Jaws” where Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss compare their scars as they show off all these executive cards and credit cards which they have earned from travelling so much and for staying in the same hotels. The chemistry between Clooney and Farmiga is instant, and it sells us on their budding relationship almost immediately. You want their characters to end up together as they are essentially the same person, although Alex puts it in another way:

“I’m like you with a vagina.”

Of course, there is a third wheel to balance things and give a little more perspective on the story. That third wheel is Natalie Keener, a recent graduate from Cornell University who has a lot of smarts, but who also has much to learn about the real world. Natalie is played by Anna Kendrick, and she is wonderful here. Natalie is here to prepare Bingham and his colleagues for a new way of firing employees; they will do it online from the comfort of their own offices. So basically, it makes a depressing piece of business all the colder. It also threatens Ryan’s way of life as he lives to be on a plane instead of his tiny dump of an apartment, and while there will always be change, his resistance to this change is very understandable.

With this development comes the road movie part as Ryan takes Natalie to different cities across the country to show her how he does his job, and of how the use of computers will detract from it and his frequent flier miles rewards. Kendrick does brilliant work in taking Natalie from being confident yet naïve to vulnerable and sad. None of the education she got could ever have prepared her for the unpredictability of a job which is never easy no matter how it’s done. Seeing her address a corporate meeting to her doing a drunken karaoke rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” should give you an idea of the range she has as an actress.

Watching Clooney instruct Kendrick on how to pack her suitcase and leave stuff out she needs is hilarious as it reminds me of my parents constantly begging me to put everything in one suitcase when traveling. This way, I won’t have to check any luggage in. I don’t know about you, but I get so sick and tired of hauling a suitcase all over the place when I have my messenger bag to worry about already. Who packed this suitcase anyway? Okay, I’m getting off track here…

“Up in The Air,” was Jason Reitman’s third film and, along with “Juno” and “Thank You for Smoking,” he showed us how infinitely talented he is as a director. He even makes this movie even more authentic to those times of high unemployment by casting real people who have lost their jobs. This brings a lot more reality to the movie and reminds us of how unfair life can be despite our individual efforts to do the best job possible. Reitman also does not sell out the movie with a false ending where everything is wrapped up neatly. In fact, it proves to be far more devastating than I ever could have expected.

Reitman also populates the movie with other great actors who make as strong an imprint on the film as the leads do. Jason Bateman plays Bingham’s boss, Craig Gregory, and this role is the flipside of the manager he played in “Extract.” It turns out Bateman can be charming in one role and utterly smarmy in another with no problem. Amy Morton is also really good as Ryan’s estranged sister Kara, a woman suffering through her own midlife crises which her brother makes look like he is getting through it with no problem. Melanie Lynskey (great in both “The Informant!” and “Away We Go“) is a wonderful presence as Julie, Ryan’s younger sister who is about to get married. I was also surprised to see Danny McBride here in a slightly more dramatic role as Julie’s soon-to-be husband, Jim Miller. McBride definitely has some funny moments, but he really sells himself as a man who is not sure if he’s doing the right thing or not.

I also have to give a lot of credit to some actors who make the most of their respective cameos. Zach Galifianakis gives this movie one of its funniest moments as Steve, one of many fired employees whom Ryan has had to face. Looking at the things his character could have done had he been fired by his cowardly boss instead is hysterical. Then you have J.K. Simmons who gives his suddenly jobless character of Bob a morbid sense of humor as he manages to contain himself in his understandably pissed off state. When Ryan ends up making Bob see this is not an end but a beginning, Simmons takes this character from being depressed to being aroused with possibilities he thought were long since lost to him. Simmons is onscreen for only a couple of minutes, but he infuses his role with a dry sense of humor which makes his performance especially memorable.

Another thing I really loved about “Up in The Air” is how wonderfully complex the characters are, and this includes the ones who are only onscreen for a few minutes. We may have the stereotypical traits of each character nailed into our heads, but they keep revealing different parts of their personalities in ways which truly surprised me. Once we have these characters figured out, another layer is revealed which affects their relationships with one another quite deeply. I would love it if more movies allowed to have more multi-faceted characters in them instead of just succumbing to one-dimensional freaks who exist to annoy the hell out of you.

“Up in The Air” was far and away one of my favorite films of 2009, and it is interesting to watch it again years later during a time of a frightening global pandemic. On top of many worried about their health and toilet paper, this pandemic has left a record number of Americans out of work. This film was quick to remind me of what it was to suddenly lose a job and how to move on from there. It also has a cameo from Young M.C. who sings his hit song “Bust a Move.” He certainly has gained a lot of weight since the 1990’s. Then again, I should talk (sigh)…

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Tully’ Finds Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody Creating Unforgettable Cinema Once Again

Tully movie poster

Okay, as I write this review for “Tully,” the latest collaboration between filmmaker Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, I have to confess I am not a parent. I have not experienced restless nights with a crying newborn who constantly needs a bottle of milk or a quick diaper change, and if I ever do become a parent, I am certain I will deal with it as well as my friends with kids have (which is to say, not at all). But after watching “Tully,” I feel confident in saying it is one of the more honest depictions of what a mother goes through before, during and after she gives birth. Whereas most movies conclude with the birth of a child, this one starts with one and goes from there.

Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a mother of two and with a third on the way. Her belly is so big to where she looks ready to burst at any second, and we also see how overwhelmed she is with everything and anything. Her son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) is an overly-sensitive boy who freaks out loud noises he is exposed to, and she is forced to give him more attention at the expense of her daughter Mia (Lia Frankland). When Marlo visits the principal at Jonah’s school and tells her this third child is “such a blessing,” you can tell she doesn’t fully believe it.

When Marlo does give birth to a girl she names Mia, it is one of the more unique birth scenes in movies. Most filmmakers treat the arrival of a newborn with unfettered joy, but “Tully” treats it dispassionately as Marlo is too wiped out and depressed to be happy about anything. For a moment, I feared this movie would venture into “We Need to Talk about Kevin” territory, but neither Reitman or Cody are out to make this story about a sociopathic child.

From there, Reitman presents us with a furious montage of Marlo constantly getting up in the middle of the night to take care of her crying baby, feed her, change her diapers (always an unappealing task), and pump milk out of her breasts. Sure, Marlo does have a loving husband in Drew (Ron Livingston), but he has yet to fully see the heavy toll motherhood is taking on her. It’s an unnerving montage as we keep waiting for Marlo to explode in frustration, and when she eventually does, you cannot blame her.

Marlo’s brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), comes to her rescue by offering to hire a night nanny. Marlo is at first very hesitant to let Craig do this as the thought of anyone else raising her children is terrifying, but one day after she is unable to stop Mia’s crying, she relents. The night nanny comes in the form of Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a youthful woman who quickly proves to be wise beyond her years. Once she comes into Marlo’s life, things begin to change for the better, but as the movie goes on, you wonder more about who Tully is and if she is too good to be true.

Watching “Tully” reminded me of many scenes in movies and television where I witnessed a mother losing her patience. We watched Marge Simpson roar like a lion at anyone who couldn’t possibly understand her frustrations, we were taken aback when Dee Wallace yelled at her son “alright I’ll get your daddy!” while being stalked by a rabid St. Bernard in “Cujo,” and we watched helplessly as Brie Larson tried to explain to her son what is really going with them in “Room.” Mothers will often explode in frustration, and many of the best movies about parenting portray this. As we see Marlo get upset with her kids, it is highly likely we will be reminded of the agony we put our own mothers through to where a long overdue apology may be required from us. “Tully” has several moments like these, and they are fully earned throughout.

Theron has long since proven to us what a phenomenal actress she can be. As Marlo, she gives a fully realized performance as a mother who looks like the joy she has for life has been completely sucked out of her. The Oscar-winning actress makes you feel the pain of Marlo’s situation as the character has long since reached her breaking point to where she seems like she cannot take another challenge thrown in her general direction. As the movie goes on, we see Marlo rise out of her depressed state to where she experiences happiness for what seems like the first time in ages. Theron makes us feel every note of Marlo’s anguishes and triumphs to where we cannot come out of this motion picture saying we were not the least bit moved.

As the night nanny, Mackenzie Davis proves to be such a luminous presence as Tully to where we realize this movie doesn’t just need her, it deserves her. A modern-day Mary Poppins, Tully predicts Marlo’s every move and need and gives her just what she needs to make it to the next stage in her life. Davis is best known for her work on “Halt and Catch Fire” and for appearing in one of my favorite movies of 2017, “Blade Runner 2049.” She gives off such a warm glow in “Tully” to where you just want to hug here and never let her go.

I also have to give credit to Ron Livingston who plays Marlo’s husband, Drew. It could have been a thankless role of a husband and father completely ignorant of his wife’s suffering, but the “Office Space” actor makes him more than the average movie dad. Even as Drew loses himself in video games which have him battling and killing zombies, Livingston makes us see he is a man with a good heart even with all his flaws. In his penultimate scene, Livingston doesn’t make Drew into a total schmuck who berates his wife when things go haywire, but instead into a spouse eager to admit he doesn’t know everything his wife is going through and is desperate to hear her out. I love it when Livingston says “I love us” instead of “I love you” as it shows the perspective and honesty Reitman and Cody are committed to giving this particular parental adventure, and it makes this moment between these two characters all the more special.

If I have any problems with “Tully,” they come in the second half when revelations are made to where we have no choice but to question everything we just saw I would tell you which movies these revelations reminded me of, but this would be giving away way too much. But while these revelations could have wrecked any other motion picture, they do little to take away from this one.

“Tully” marks a big comeback for Reitman and Cody after a few years of cinematic misfires. “Labor Day” and “Men, Women & Children” put a few dents in Reitman’s resume as a director, and Cody’s directorial debut “Paradise” and screenplay for “Ricki and the Flash” (0ne of Jonathan Demme’s last films before his death) were ill-received to put it mildly. But when these two artists come together, they create something which is never easily forgotten.

Reitman makes the struggles these parents go through all the more vivid without making them seem the least bit glamorous. “Tully” does not have the look of a motion picture to where you feel like you are watching one, but instead of a real life setting with all its messiness and imperfections on display. At times, I felt like I was watching a home movie, and this made everything I saw feel all the more powerful.

As a writer, Cody still comes up with some classic zingers like “abandoned trash barge” or describing someone as a “book of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders,” but her screenplay also shows her rising to another level of thoughtfulness and maturity. Being the mother of three children herself, Cody clearly understands the journey such a person ends takes to where the mother/newborn connection is not forged right away. There has been some controversy over “Tully’s” portrayal of mental illness, and it is never made clear if Marlo is suffering from post-partum depression or something similar. Cody, however, is not out to make Marlo a special case study, but instead to share the challenges she was forced to overcome to be the mom she is today.

I think it is more than appropriate that “Tully” has arrived in theaters just in time for Mother’s Day. Lord knows we owe our mothers a great deal of gratitude for all they have done for us, let alone all they have gone through to get us to where we are today. Sure, dads deserve a lot of credit too, but being a mother comes with a lot more challenges and obstacles to overcome. If this Reitman/Cody film cannot make you see this, then what will?

* * * ½ out of * * * *