Up In The Air: A First-Class Film
Like scheduling a cross-country flight with layovers, timing can be everything. Up In The Air is not only great because of its pitch-perfect performances, its witty and detailed writing, and its flawless execution, but because here comes a movie that feels perfect for what’s happening in this country right now. A film doesn’t have to be escapist fare to be entertaining– it can look the devastation of this country’s economy, and the struggles for middle-aged folks in a job market becoming younger and more tech-savvy by the day, and it finds laughter, sadness, and ultimately, a cathartic release in the end. It’s not often I leave a theater feeling a strong certainty that I’ve just seen the best film of the year… but I definitely felt that among the multitude of emotions I was experiencing while walking out after Up In The Air.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) makes a living out of firing people. He’s the best there is at what he does– he’s hired by a company to deliver bad news, and he finds ways of letting people go that don’t result in major incident. We see him deal with many employees standing on the brink, and he finds ways of at least talking them down if not improving their morale. Think of him as the grief counselor for the people whom he is causing grief. In a down economy, his business is better than ever, and we see the very real reactions of many people who get fired at the beginning. It’s a lonely existence, spent on the road all of the time with a wallet full of Rewards cards, SkyMiles, and special deals at hotels across the nation. Bingham never feels lonely, however; he is comforted by the routine, and even meets a woman in a similar field, Alex (Vera Farmiga), who feels the same solace in permanent mobility and detachment. We sense something special between them instantly.
Unfortunately, his boss (Jason Bateman) call him back to the home base in Omaha, Nebraska. Bingham is told he is grounded for the time being– a young Cornell graduate named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has proposed a webcam-based system of termination which would save the company countless amounts of money. No more sending people on the road, paying for plane fare, rental cars, or hotel rooms! Bingham, whose apartment in Omaha looks less like a home than his hotel rooms do, is offended not only by the prospect of living in Nebraska rather than on the road, but by Keener’s whole proposal, which he finds dangerous and insensitive– not an easy accusation for a man who fires people for a living to make. The boss has an easy solution: if he thinks Keener is so naive with no idea of how the system works, take her out on the road and show her how the great Ryan Bingham does it. He reluctantly is forced to take her under his wing; after all, he’d rather be on the road with the enemy than at home, period.
Jason Reitman, who now must be considered easily one of the best young talents making studio pictures today after Thank You For Smoking and Juno, begins this film with the montage of fired people dealing with the news. We see a variety of responses, all of which seem quite real (and indeed, Reitman used recently fired people in the film to help capture accurately the emotions people run through in that room). We now recognize the world of the film– it’s now. Family men have trouble making ends meet if they follow their dreams, so they settle for jobs in cubicles, utilizing one talent, and then by the time they’re fired at middle age, they have mortgages, families to feed, and are too old to be seen as attractive businessmen at hiring companies. It’s the unfortunate sad reality that the film is set in, and luckily, George Clooney is the actor doing the firing. He makes Bingham so convincing that we sit there and think, “I wish if I was getting fired, it would be this way.” Even though we know it’s only business, we sit and wonder whether there’s true sympathy behind those eyes. Clooney plays his hand tight to his chest– he’s made a career out of rogueish charming detachment, making Ryan Bingham the role of his lifetime. He’s never been more at ease in a role, he’s never been so cool and confident, and when he does begin to show chinks in his armor, he’s never revealed more subtle hints of vulnerability.
Anna Kendrick, so cute and quirky in the Twilight movies, reveals herself in this film as an actress unafraid to stand in a room with George Clooney and Jason Bateman and totally own the screen. It’s the kind of performance that makes you (and Academy voters, undoubtedly) take notice of a new exciting talent. It would be a shame if the Academy didn’t also recognize Vera Farmiga’s work. I’m not certain there is an actress who can portray sensuality and intelligence in the same breath as well as Farmiga can. You might think the scene where Clooney and Farmiga list their sky miles, reward points, and so on is silly at first, but Farmiga’s responses help make the scene a seductive kind of foreplay. I’m struggling to name an on-screen couple with better chemistry this year than Ryan and Alex. Special mention must also go to Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons, who have extended scenes as men being fired by Bingham– they have one scene a piece in the film, but they make cutting impressions with the way they handle the bad news.
Many of the best films this year deal with the feeling of being stuck, and the difficulties that come with attempting to break out of the rut that life seems to want to put you into. The situation may be specific– from the title teen in Precious to the old man in Up– but the feeling is universal. Everyone makes concessions in order to make it to the next day, and everyone has to trade in some dreams for some realities. In Up In The Air, Bingham understands this mentality, but he’s never had to live it, since he believes his dreams differ from those he fires. By the end of the film, he’s learned what everyone in these movies learns, that life isn’t worth a damn if one lives it completely alone, but he learns this lesson in a way that feels organic, that sidesteps from the contrived turns one would expect the film to take. This is unquestionably a Hollywood film, in pacing and structure, so don’t expect the plot machinations to leave you totally surprised. It was the execution that surprised me, the way that Reitman and the actors managed to take an occupation defined universally by its heartlessness and got not only us to care, but got the characters to care as well. It’s a rich and complex comedy that trusts the audience to be smart and never attempts to force the audience to empathize. It’s without a doubt one of the best movies I have seen all year.