Starz Denver Film Festival closes with weak surprise, strong film: George Clooney's Up in the Air

jk simmons illustration.jpg
Surprise! J.K. Simmons is in town! Oh, wait: you already knew that...
Last week, the folks behind the Starz Denver Film Festival ballyhooed a last-minute addition to the schedule -- a Sunday screening of a picture "on a clear runway to the Oscars" that would be introduced by a "surprise" appearance by an "award-winning and acclaimed actor" from the cast.

The clear implication: The movie would be Up in the Air, a much-hyped movie starring George Clooney. And if he showed up, his appearance would have immediately silenced gripes about a lack of starpower at this year's fest.

In the end, such complaints weren't squelched. After all, the introducer in question was J.K. Simmons, a character actor (as opposed to a star) who everyone already knew was in town to accept the fest's Cassavetes award earlier Sunday afternoon. His presence at the King Center unspooling was unexpected only because few knew he was part of Up in the Air. And he barely is.

As Simmons acknowledged after being introduced by fest director Britta Erickson, he only put in one day of work on the film at the request of director Jason Reitman, who said he wants J.K. to be part of all his movies. Up in the Air was the third Reitman entry in his filmography, following Thank You For Smoking and Juno. The result of their latest teamwork is an entertaining minute or two of footage -- a strong cameo, but a cameo nonetheless.

Clearly, the fest's decision to raise expectations about a new celeb stop, only to offer up a previously announced guest, was a mistake. But it would have been infinitely worse if Up in the Air had turned out to be a disappointment. And fortunately, it wasn't.

The movie (which opens nationwide on Christmas day) revolves around Ryan Bingham (Clooney), whose job is to fly around the country and fire workers on behalf of "pussy" bosses who don't have the guts to do the chore themselves. En route, he meets and falls for Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow traveler with seemingly the same viewpoint as his: At one point, she tells Ryan she's basically him with a vagina. But their meet-ups are complicated when a young addition to the firm (Anna Kendrick) conceives of a way to cut costs by firing people via video link. Before the plan is implemented, however, she joins Ryan on the road, where she gets a feel for what it's like to sack people up-close and personal.

The result recalls 1996's Jerry Maguire, except that Ryan's profession is even more unlikable than the sports agent gig practiced by Cameron Crowe's title character. Nonetheless, the role is idea for Clooney, whose well-polished charm helps create a distance between Ryan and his deeds that slowly deteriorates as the story moves forward. He's matched by Farmiga, who may have finally found her breakout role, and Kendrick, best known for a small recurring part in the Twilight saga -- although not for long.

The economic subtext gives Up in the Air the sort of heft that should help the Motion Picture Academy overlook its age-old bias against comedies -- especially given that this year, ten films will win Best Picture nods. That's especially true of the ending, which is a lot more ambiguous than most offerings in this genre. Still, the lack of a crowd-pleasing conclusion shouldn't prevent crowds from appreciating the film anyhow.

That was true of attendees at the sneak peak yesterday. They didn't get a chance to eyeball Clooney, or Farmiga, or supporting player Jason Bateman, or some unexpected luminary, but no one walked out unhappy. Such is the power of a good movie -- a commodity in which the Denver Film Festival specializes. Lucky thing.


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