One of the few upsets at this year’s tepid Academy Awards was Precious beating Up in the Air for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film had won scripting awards from the Writers Guild of America, the National Board of Review, BAFTA, and the Golden Globes—but there was some backstage turbulence, which director and co-writer Jason Reitman unintentionally draws attention to on the DVD. He begins by saying that the disc’s commentary track was recorded on Dec. 7, two days after the movie’s limited release, and before the Pearl Harbor that had allegedly broken out between him and co-writer Sheldon Turner went public. Reitman, who shares the mike with cinematographer Eric Steelberg and first assistant director Jason Blumenfeld, says that his wife helped him on the script, but Turner’s contribution, perhaps tellingly, goes unmentioned.
Now, it could be that Oscar voters read the novels on which Precious and Up in the Air are based, paid close attention to how the films compared, and made an informed choice. Yeah, right. The likelier scenario is that the rumors hung in the Air, and that Oscar decided that the 32-year-old Reitman, with this film, Thank You for Smoking, and Juno to his credit, and despite a prior directing nomination for the latter, was somehow unworthy of its honor. And so Up in the Air—whose Best Actor nominee already had a trophy, whose two nominated Supporting Actresses cancelled each other out and were powerless anyway in the path of Mo’Nique, and whose shots at Best Director and Best Picture were in a world of Hurt—went home winless. The Photoshoppy cover art of the DVD and Blu-ray adds insult to the injury of its also-ran status.
Don’t believe it. I was happy to see my No. 1 film of last year, The Hurt Locker, win Best Picture and Director, but Up in the Air was, and is, my wingman. Conceived as a satire, then reshaped into something more empathetic and nuanced as the recession dug in, the film makes no great statement on the way we live now, and is all the better for that. Rather, it offers many smaller observations on work, and love, and lifestyle, as seen through the prism of Ryan Bingham—not the one who won an Oscar for Best Song, but the corporate downsizing executive played so wonderfully by George Clooney. Bingham is a master of those in-between moments—faceless flights, overnight stays in featureless hotels—that most of us look at as a chore. That skill equips him for his job, getting rid of employee dead weight as quickly and as reassuringly as possible. (Non-actors, themselves laid off, play some of the newly unemployed.) But recent college grad Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who plans to automate his job function, and a fellow traveler, Alex (Vera Farmiga), who takes his love life off autopilot, ruffle Bingham’s composure on his rounds as he nears his personal goal of racking up 10 million frequent flyer miles. However the writing went down this is a film that truly multitasks, functioning equally well as a surprising romantic comedy, an insightful look at the unemployment crisis, and an incisive portrait of a Teflon man on whom something finally sticks.
The flying-high commentary takes in the difficulties of shooting in airports and hotel lounges (”my next movie will take place entirely in a house,” Reitman says), deciding whether or not dining scenes should incorporate eating and drinking, and song selection. Disc extras are otherwise coach class, and include a look at the filming of the terrific opening credits and a few deleted scenes, including a wisely excised sequence where Bingham imagines himself an astronaut. No matter: Steelberg’s impressive cross-country photography is perfectly preserved on the anamorphic widescreen transfer (1.85.1 aspect ratio), and Up in the Air itself, now free of its Oscar season burden, is the main attraction. Keep it in your backpack.
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