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Invictus and Up in the Air

George Clooney Takes on Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon at the Weekend Box Office

Credit: Warner Brothers

Above: "Invictus"


KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews Invictus and Up in the Air


Matt Damon and George Clooney have worked together in a number of films. But this weekend they’ll have competing films at the box office. You can also listen to my radio review of “Invictus” and “Up in the Air” (both are opening December 11 throughout San Diego).

The awards season is officially in full swing as two hopeful candidates face off at the box office.

CLIP: “Welcome President Mandela…”

"Invictus" opens in 1995. Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman who also produced the film) is the newly elected president of South Africa. He faces a country still divided after years of Apartheid. Then he finds an unlikely means of bridging the divide by bringing the Rugby World Cup to South Africa and getting the entire country behind the home team of the Springboks.

Mandela: "Captain of the Springboks is a difficult job."

Francois: "Not compared to yours."

Mandela: "Well no one is trying to tear my head off while I’m doing mine."

Directed by Clint Eastwood, “Invictus” provides some interesting insights into Mandela’s leadership style but ultimately delivers nothing more than a predictably inspiring sports tale. Here’s a moment that sums up the film’s failure.

Mandela: "I am 100% behind our boys if I can’t change how can I expect others to."

Song lyrics: "It’s not just a game…"

Okay, do I really need a sappy song to tell me the obvious? No I don’t. It’s all too clear that this rugby match is a potent symbol for all involved. “Invictus” runs too long, doesn’t know how to make rugby exciting, and builds false tension by repeatedly overplaying the perils the newly elected president faces.

Security guard: "I don’t care about the game just that the president is safe."

But we know no one tries to assassinate Mandela so all the efforts to turn the film into a 24-style thriller come across as contrived and a waste of time. Especially a sequence that involves a plane that appears to be heading directly for the final match in a manner looking suspiciously like the 9/11 terrorist attack. But if Clint takes all the wrong turns in “Invictus,” young upstart Jason Reitman flies right with “Up in the Air.”

Ryan Bingham: "To know me is to fly with me, this is where I live…"

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

"Up in the Air"

George Clooney is in his element as Ryan Bingham, a corporate henchman who fires people when companies don’t have the guts to do it themselves. He’s surprisingly considerate of those he fires yet he seems unable to connect emotionally with anyone in his own life.

Ryan: "You know that moment when they stare into soul and world goes quiet"

Natalie: "Yes."

Ryan Bingham: "Right well I don’t."

Then Ryan literally gets grounded and he’s forced to face a very different lifestyle. So he suddenly finds himself viewing the world from a new perspective. Previously, Reitman delivered the smart comedies “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno.” “Up in the Air” is similarly sharp with well-defined characters and snappy dialogue.

Alex:: "I’m a sucker for simulated hospitality."

Ryan: "There's a word for that. A mix of 'faux' and 'homey', 'fax-mie.'"

It’s refreshing to hear characters that display some verbal dexterity and a script that moves cleverly along, entertaining us as it actually works to develop its characters and themes. The filmmakers also decide to give an edge to their downsizing comedy by filming people who had actually been laid off and allowing them a chance to vent for the cameras.

Unlike “Invictus,” which seems weighed down by its own sense of self-importance, “Up in the Air” is agile and light on its feet, allowing us to discover its weightier themes for ourselves. “Invictus” tackles a more important subject but it does so with the heavy-handedness of an afterschool special. There may be much to admire about Mandela in “Invictus,” but the film’s uplifting message comes across as overly simplistic. “Up in the Air,” on the other hand, serves up a smartly crafted package about a much smaller subject and delivers the savvier, more rewarding film.

"Invictus" is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, and "Up in the Air" is rated R for language and some sexual content.

Companion viewing for "Invictus": "District 9," "This Sporting Life," "Mandela"

Companion viewing for "Up in the Air": "Thank You for Smoking," "Juno," "The Matador"

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