Up in the Air
Director : Jason Reitman
Screenplay : Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner (based on the novel by Walter Kim)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : George Clooney (Ryan Bingham), Vera Farmiga (Alex Goran), Anna Kendrick (Natalie Keener), Jason Bateman (Craig Gregory), Amy Morton (Kara Bingham), Melanie Lynskey (Julie Bingham), J.K. Simmons (Bob), Sam Elliott (Maynard Finch), Danny McBride (Jim Miller), Zach Galifianakis (Steve), Chris Lowell (Kevin), Steve Eastin (Samuels), Marvin Young (Young MC), Lucas MacFadden (Conference DJ (as Cut Chemist), Adrienne Lamping (Tammy)
Unlike most “topical” films, which invariably arrive a little too late, Up in the Air is a perfectly timed evocation of our current era of corporate volatility, a wobbly economy, and a general air of unease and uncertainty. It evokes with both extraordinarily observed detail and a broad sense of social perspective how our jobs help define our sense of self and what happens when that is taken from us: not just a loss of income and economic stability, but a potential loss of our very identity. Of course, timeliness alone does not a great movie make, and director Jason Reitman packages Up in the Air’s relevance with a delicately balanced mixture of comedy and tragedy that builds on both his sharp-edged skewering of the cigarette industry in Thank You for Smoking (2005) and his unexpectedly touching comedic take on teen pregnancy in Juno (2007).
It doesn’t hurt that Reitman is working with George Clooney, who more so than any other actor working today is able to combine the old-world style and charm of classic Hollywood stars with the deft malleability of the best character actors (he’s like Clark Gable combined with Rod Steiger). His presence seems effortless, but when you look back through his long list of roles, the first thing that strikes you is how varied they are, ranging from dramatic intrigue (Michael Clayton), to smooth charm (Ocean’s 11), to goofy comedy (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). In every role he is somehow both quintessentially Clooney and the character he is playing, a rare hat trick that is the primary source of his appeal.
Ryan Bingham, the central character in Up in the Air, is a quintessential Clooney character, one you can’t imagine another actor playing. The film’s multiply layered title suggests on a literal level Ryan’s regular state of being: on an airplane flying across the country (he spends 270 days a year travelling and it working toward the rare achievement of amassing 10 million miles), although it also invokes both the general economy around him and the sudden and unexpected instability of his own profession. Ryan’s job “career transition counseling,” which means he fires people. He works for a firm that is hired out by other companies to break the bad news to whomever is the victim of that month’s downsizing, and business is currently booming. Ryan tackles his job with a mixture of cool professionalism (he has a scripted answer to ever angry question, sobbing cry for help, and shocked outburst) and genuine sympathy for the situation in which those he has just let go now find themselves. He understands their pain, even if his job requires that he remain calm and distant, which is the basic emotional state he has chosen in his personal life, as well.
Eschewing relationships and human baggage, Ryan has concocted a philosophy of stark individuality and personal disconnect, which he shares with others in professional seminars. The title of his talk is “What’s in Your Backpack?,” which is his metaphor for how material possessions and, more importantly, human relationships weigh us down. Ryan keeps his own backpack perpetually empty; instead, he finds pleasure and connection in the routines of constant cross-country travel (his entire being is embodied by the various cards that get him to the front of lines, admit him to airline lounges, and get him the best rates on everything). Travel keeps him constantly in motion (which Reitman epitomizes in clever montages of Ryan going through airport security or packing his carry-on) and thus never in danger of being tied down.
That all changes with the arrival of Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a tightly wound and extremely ambitious recent college graduate who has convinced Ryan’s boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), that the future of the firing business is online, not physical face-to-face meetings. On paper, Natalie’s proposal is sound in that its cuts down substantially on travel expenditures while essentially meeting the same goals. Ryan immediately sees its flaws; ironically, for the man who studiously avoids human relationships, he recognizes that firing someone on a computer screen removes the human connection that can be achieved only by sharing the same space. More than that, though, Ryan’s sees that his carefully cultivated way of life will come to an end if Natalie’s proposal is adopted because it means he will be, for lack of a better word, grounded--literally stuck in the same place. Thus, his preferred life of being constantly “up in the air” is now up in the air itself, which is why he consents to allow Natalie to accompany him on one of his trips to let her see how it is done.
Thus, part of Up in the Air’s dynamic is the experienced veteran showing the determined newbie the ropes, which in this case involves not only the proper etiquette of dealing with distraught former employees, but also the benefits of four-wheeled suitcases, who to get in line behind at the airport (Asians, not the elderly), and how to crash hotel parties. Natalie is ambitious but naïve, both professionally and personally, and Ryan has much to show her. Of course, he also has much to learn from her, even if he doesn’t realize it.
A second dynamic in the film is Ryan’s relationship with Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), who is essentially a female version of himself: always travelling, always in motion, and with no desire to be tied down by anything. They are first attracted by their mutual knowledge of the best rental car deals and airline perks, and their sexual chemistry is heightened by the understanding that the next day they will both be in different cities. Yet, as Ryan spends time with Natalie and begins to absorb some of her youthful ideals about marriage and family, he begins to rethink his existence, especially after attending the wedding of his younger sister (Melanie Lynskey) and her slightly dopey fiancée (Danny McBride), who he ironically talks out of having cold feet.
Yet, Up in the Air is not a simplistic story of easy redemption, with Ryan abandoning his isolated existence for the warmth of monogamous human connection that Natalie envisions as the end-all-be-all of human existence (she and Ryan are both equally deluded, just on opposite ends of the spectrum). Instead, it is a film of hard truths and no easy answers that saves some of its harshest surprises for the final moments, even as it lays the groundwork for better things to come. Reitman, who scripted the film with Sheldon Turner (The Longest Yard) from the novel by Walter Kim, has an intuitive understanding of the way smiles and winces go hand in hand, which could have made the film tonally unwieldy, but instead forges it with a sense of real life. Up in the Air is ultimately about realization, about coming to terms with the way we justify our lives, even if it is not always in our best interests. Clooney’s performance as a man who slowly and surely acknowledges the gaping holes in his philosophy is both funny but fundamentally moving, and the fact that he is not able to immediately patch those holes is not evidence of cynicism, but rather the realistic outlook that Rome was not built in a day, much less taken apart and rebuilt.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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