Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Danny McBride, J.K. Simmons
Running Time:108 Minutes
Release Date: 4th December 2009
This excellent review by Kristopher Tapley of In Contention.
Jason Reitman began adapting Walter Kirn’s novel “Up in the Air” five or six years ago. The country was on better economic turf, he wasn’t married, he didn’t have a child. He was drawn to a book jacket with a quote from his friend, “Thank You for Smoking” author Christopher Buckley, enchanted by a lead character obsessed with collecting frequent flyer miles who lives a single-serving lifestyle from airport to airport.
Today, unemployment rates are skyrocketing, tangible human connectivity is becoming a relic of another century, Reitman has settled down with a wife and daughter and futures all around are uncertain. But in some ways, there is hope, a sense of turning an all important corner. By the end of “Up in the Air,” that is just where Reitman has left his protagonist.
Meanwhile, Kirn’s novel has been transformed from an otherwise unremarkable example of corporate comedy into a piece at once deeply personal and serendipitously relevant. This is one of the year’s finest films.
George Clooney stars in perhaps the role of his career (one certainly drawing parallels to his own lifestyle) as Ryan Bingham, a career transition counselor who zips from hub to hub 270 days a year. In a nutshell, he is part of a third party firm hired out to corporations for the purposes of firing discontinued clientele. He lives a life of isolation, a stranger to his Midwest family, who sees him rarely and kills his commitment-less buzz anytime they call with an update.
He has airport check-in down to a science, stereotypically zeroing in on those who are quickest to follow behind at security, Moonwalking out of his shoes as he does so, his luggage immaculately packed, his system a work of streamlined art. When he isn’t letting people go in the name of other companies, he gives motivational addresses meant to steer attendees clear of the extra baggage in their life, their commitments, extraneous relationships, anything that keeps them from living a life as he believes it is meant to be lived: in motion.
Ryan is, for lack of a better cliche, an island unto himself.
This extravagantly absentee lifestyle is interrupted when Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a 23-year-old corporate-minded upstart, introduces a new technology to Ryan’s company that can allow the job to be done remotely, cutting down on travel costs, amping up the frequency and, essentially, rendering people like Ryan obsolete.
With Ryan objecting on the basis of unsubstantial delicacy with this lack of a personal touch, the film introduces its first paradox. While he may be perfectly content to fly about the country with little more than one-night-stands to show for personal connection, he understands the importance of looking people in the eye, in the flesh, when they are at one of their weakest, most insecure moments.
It is the beginning of a compelling arc that goes into deeply emotional territory before Ryan is set off on his newly enlightened course by film’s end, something like a phoenix risen from the ashes of a selfish, unfulfilled existence.
George Clooney sticks the landing with his performance in the most modest manner imaginable. There will be flashier performances this year, certainly more memorable ones. It isn’t the actor’s finest work to date and he will likely give better performances in the future, but it is doubtful he will ever have the opportunity to be this authentic and to stare character parallels such as these directly in the eye ever again.
Ryan is a man happy to be single, without children, a playboy of the sky. He was written with Clooney in mind and the actor deserves a glass raised high for tackling, however subtly, his own image in this way.
Anna Kendrick is wonderful as a naive firecracker vulnerable to the typical stings of youth: love lost, ambitious dreams, professional inexperience. As Alex, a love interest who brings out the most refined detail in Ryan’s characterization, Vera Farmiga hints at deep waters and complex emotions that live in her expressions, her steady gaze. The two in tandem make for an intriguing set of diverging paths for Ryan, the choice of his life path laid bare.
But the star of the production is Jason Reitman, who has crafted a screenplay both profound and entertaining, one with comedic rhythms that sing and emotional beats that resonate. That the effort is wrapped, on the surface, in a very timely tale that will hit the zeitgeist at just the right moment is testament to his patience with the project, one that has been nourished from a harmless romp, through a life accentuated by significant change, into a work of art.
I have no problems being forthcoming with the fact that this film hit me on a personal level. In my view, authoritative criticisms of films that don’t carry across an indication of personal impact are in some ways suspect. Everyone brings something different to the table.
Perhaps the film settled for me at the right time in my life, a crossroads of understanding the necessity to plunge into life, to grow up, to recognize the power of our relationships with people, etc. But as a friend reminded, everyone is at this crossroads, regardless of age.
“Up in the Air” speaks to this. It finds a universal rhythm and lives in that space, making for one of the most effective works of the year.