Up in the Air focuses on Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a middle-aged man specializing in counseling people in the midst of career transitions — or, to put it a bit more frankly, Ryan fires employees for businesses that don’t have the spine to do it themselves. In the midst of our current recession, business is booming for Integrated Strategic Management and Ryan is sent all over the United States to render his services. On the verge of reaching five million frequent flier miles, Ryan is informed by his boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), that the company is looking to cut corners as well. With business taking off, Craig has decided to indulge a new business model masterminded by Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a young, ambitious businesswoman. Natalie’s plan? Instead of spending millions of dollars flying “Terminators” like Ryan around, the company could cut 85 percent of its budget by firing people via video chat. Ryan scoffs at Natalie’s plan, insisting that the service requires personal interaction, as their position leaves people at their most fragile. With an eye towards compromise, Craig sends the duo out across the country to try to learn from one another’s methods.
While Ryan’s job obviously holds depressing consequences for the person sitting at the other end of the desk, it has also taken a toll on Ryan. In order to seemingly make his dirty work tolerable, Ryan has alienated himself from everyone around him. Like Hugh Grant in About a Boy (2002), Ryan relishes being an island, unreachable thanks to a job that puts him on the road and in the air 320 days of the year. In his spare time, Ryan is a motivational speaker who preaches the benefits of this lifestyle choice. As he so eloquently pitches to his audience, “Make no mistake, your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star-crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.” Imagine his surprise then when he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a woman who tells Ryan “I’m just like you but with a vagina.” As time passes, their relationship deepens, particularly through a weekend trip to Ryan’s younger sister’s wedding (the bride and groom are played by Melanie Lynskey and Danny McBride). Yet, the couple must decide if they are capable of putting aside habit and reaching out for a meaningful connection.
I had severe reservations about Jason Reitman’s feature, Up in the Air (2009), upon entering the theater. As Dustin, Dan, and the participants of the L.A. Pajibacon will attest, I did not hide my distaste for Juno (2007) over a short-stack of pancakes at a Culver City Denny’s at two in the morning. Yet, I had often presumed that my problems with the ideologically conservative and superficial Juno (Am I really expected to buy into that love story!?) had more to do with Diablo Cody’s screenplay than Reitman’s execution. After all, his debut film Thank You For Smoking (2006) was cynical, hilarious, and assured in its craft. Reitman, back serving double-duty on Up in the Air as director and co-screenwriter (adapting with Sheldon Turner a novel by Walter Kirn which, for those of you heaping praise on my review of The Road, I have never read), brings many of those sentiments to the film and the result is impressive on all fronts.
Reitman’s gift as a filmmaker manifests itself in three particular artistic choices. First, the film’s aesthetic perfectly captures a shifting worldview. As Reitman noted in a question-and-answer session following the film, the film transitions from Ryan’s point of view to an omniscient perspective. In the first act of the film, the camera is constantly moving; the cuts are shockingly brief; and the mise-en-scène is sleek and muted. As Ryan’s relationships with Natalie and Alex begin to exhibit an unforeseen gravity upon his life, the color palate shifts to warm colors and the camera begins, like Ryan, to settle. I found this to be a thoughtful decision, as it gets us inside Ryan’s perspective without the crutch of voice over, which is often overused in place of more creative means.
Secondly, the way in which Reitman puts his characters in dialogue with one another (both literally and symbolically) provides them with moments of emotional growth in less-traditional fashions. Thankfully, Reitman doesn’t give us the usual version of a tearful or passionate discussion between Ryan and Alex regarding the state of their relationship. Instead, Ryan gets a scene with his sister’s fiancé to discuss the point of marriage and Natalie a scene with Alex in which they discuss how age changes the notion of “settling” romantically. By structuring the script and elaborating upon his characterization in such a way, Reitman subtlety sets up parallels that may have eluded us on first viewing but also do not stand out as complete emotional reveals.
Finally, this is a film built on performances, and everyone involved is incredible. Clooney’s romantic charm marked by cynicism reminded me of his turn in one of my favorite films, Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998). His role here is a difficult one, as Ryan is an incredibly nuanced character. His profession and approach to life renders him somewhat unsympathetic in the opening of the film. Yet, there are moments in the final act of the film where Clooney is able to use his eyes and facial expressions to express the difficulty of his position. After all, here is a man whose job pushes him into an unpleasant binary defined only by alienation and connection, and it has its consequences: He’s a single-serving friend seeking a co-pilot. I was very surprised with Vera Farmiga here. I thought she was fine but unsubstantial in The Departed (2006) and she really changed that impression here, particularly in a scene she shares with Natalie and Ryan. Finally, Anna Kendrick as an ambitious woman in the midst of becoming disillusioned is especially strong. She looks and acts a bit like Ellen Page at first, but portrays immense emotional growth and maturity very strongly.
The final performances worth noting are those of the un-professionals Reitman cast as the workers being “let go.” While filming on location across the Midwest, Reitman encountered cities ravaged by unemployment. Hoping to bring some sort of economic relief, Reitman cast numbers of unemployed, interviewed about their termination, and then asked them to reenact their reactions to the news. With the exception of a few character actors (J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis most notably) spread across the film, non-professionals exclusively hold the roles of future unemployed. This touch adds a particular grittiness and reality to Ryan’s profession, taking away the satirical distance that we encountered in Thank You for Smoking. At the end of the day, Up in the Air is a film that, like Ryan, looks to connect and does so in many unsuspected and inspired ways.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.