Up in the Air
Mature look at the world of corporate downsizing mixes romance, humor and a timely personal touch
Up in the Air
Directed by Jason Reitman
Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga
When Up in the Air marches confidently into February’s Oscar race (and it will), it will be on the strength of its sharp writing and expertly grounded performances. If Up in the Air succeeds at the box office (and it might), it will be due largely to the film’s timely theme.
Director Jason Reitman, who last impressed with 2007’s Juno, tackles Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel about the world of corporate downsizing with uniformly polished results. The result is a film to both enjoy and admire.
George Clooney is our main focus of attention. He plays Ryan Bingham, a happily unencumbered executive with a freelance firm whose job it is to jet around the United States giving the boot to middle management employees whose bosses are too cowardly to do the dirty work themselves. Ryan is a professional in every sense of the word. Efficient, well-spoken and calmly understanding, Ryan has a skill for crushing people’s careers with a minimum of emotional fuss. The people he “works” with have done nothing wrong. They’re not being fired for any deficiency other than the fact that their companies can no longer afford them. They’re simply casualties of the economic downturn. Ryan’s job is to let them down easily, give them hope for the future; but mostly to get them out of the building without their keys as quickly as possible.
Floating from city to city more than 300 days out of the year, Ryan has no concept of a thing called home. And he likes it that way. He’s a road warrior, happiest when he’s racking up frequent flier miles, being catered to in a luxury airport lounge or checking into a cordial but comfortably anonymous hotel. He measures his success by the number of Gold Club cards he lugs around in his wallet. The people he fires are the poor, sad schmucks tied down to families they can’t support, houses they can pay for, cities they only moved to because they were chasing a spouse or a career.
Ryan thinks of himself as a free bird, a man firmly in charge of his own destiny. Naturally, he’s in line for a hard life lesson. Thankfully, Up in the Air doesn’t follow any tried-and-true path getting him there.
One day, Ryan bumps heads with his firm’s new go-getter, an idea-filled college grad named Natalie Keener (plucky Anna Kendrick from the Twilight saga). Where Ryan sees the freedom of the open road, Natalie sees inefficiency. Why fly around the United States firing people in person when you can just do it via teleconferencing? Rightfully, Ryan senses danger—both to his own job security and to the people he’s paid to interact with. While he doesn’t exactly empathize with his downsized subjects, he does offer them a certain cool sympathy. It’s a skill he’s developed over years of careful study and interaction. Believing Natalie’s high-tech solution to be a foolish endeavor, Ryan challenges her to head out on the job with him, to go face-to-face with economically depressed America and see what it’s really like to rob someone of their livelihood.
Now, if Up in the Air were your standard Hollywood film, this would be an obvious invitation to head straight into rom-com territory, with our two polar opposite corporate dragons falling for one another while stranded at the Days Inn in Portland. But that’s not going to happen here. For one, Ryan’s already got his romantic sights set on fellow corporate jet-setter Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga). “Think of me as you with a vagina,” Alex says upon meeting Ryan. Truer words were never spoken. Equally mature, reserved, set in their ways and in love with their rootless lifestyles, Ryan and Alex seem like the perfect match.
Then there is the heart of Up in the Air. Between hopping from one interchangeable airport to the next, Ryan and Natalie get a heaping helping of recession-rattled America. Reitman has made an interesting decision here. The film’s storyline is punctuated by When Harry Met Sally ...-style interviews. The interviews are, ostensibly, with Ryan’s “clients,” each one pondering what they’re going to do in today’s climate without their jobs. These documentary-style interviews are conducted not with actors, but with real people who have recently been downsized. The interviews fit seamlessly into the film, giving it a perceptible weight and an unshakable relevancy.
Not that Up in the Air is all doom and gloom. No. In fact, it’s a positively effervescent comedy with the sort of snappy comic repartee you expect to hear coming out of the mouths of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Honestly, if you had to choose modern-day substitutes for those two Golden Age stars, you couldn’t do any better than George Clooney and Vera Farmiga. Clooney continues to mature into his own persona, and he’s never been more charming, more devilish, more sympathetic, more dramatic than he is here. Farmiga, looking for a star turn after solid roles in The Departed and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, bursts right off the screen—sexy, smart, strong and never less than magnetic alongside Clooney. Welcome to the A-list, my dear.
As a director, Reitman is still the tiniest bit green. Every once in a while, the editing feels choppy. Occasionally, the pacing slips a gear. And there are fleeting moments when the film looks ready to take the easy way out, to follow the path of least resistance, to become predictable. Toward the end, on the knife edge of his emotional epiphany, Ryan accepts an invitation to speak at a conference he’s always dreamed of. As he’s gearing up to deliver his patented motivational speech about the need to divest oneself of physical and emotional baggage, we just know he’s going to snap right there at the podium and “get” the film’s message about love, camaraderie and we’re-all-in-this-togetherness. He does, of course, but Reitman and company send him on a much different path then the one we’re expecting. That’s indicative of Up in the Air as a whole. It zigs when you expect it to zag. It makes you laugh when you expect to squirt tears. And it catches you square in the gut just when you think things are at their happy high point. It’s enough to make filmgoers feel like—gasp!—adults.