Every couple of years it seems director Jason Reitman is putting out a movie that ends up on my best of the year list. Oh wait, that’s exactly what he’s been doing.
Starting in 2005 with Thank You for Smoking followed by 2007’s Juno, Reitman has quickly made a name for himself creating smart, funny, off-beat, award-winning films with heart, wit, and a little bit of sass.
Another two years have gone by, and Reitman returns once again with tale of a salesman. In Thank You for Smoking Aaron Eckhart made smoking not only palatable, but patriotic.
Here Reitman casts George Clooney as a termination specialist, a man who is selling unemployment – with a smile. And as he did with Eckhart, Reitman allows the man’s natural charm and the wit of the script to soften the hard edges of what it is he’s selling. If you’ve never believed a movie about firing people could be this entertaining, you’re about to be proven very wrong.
In Up in the Air our hero is Ryan Bingham (Clooney) a man who makes his living firing people he’s never met and selling them on the idea that the promise of tomorrow might be just enough to make it through the misery of today.
Ryan spends most of his life in airport bars, hotels, and flying from one city to the next. He has a bare apartment he never sees, few real friends, barely speaks to his family, and a constant urning to remain on the go.
This isn’t just his preferred lifestyle, it’s his philosophy. In his spare time the man gives seminars on living a life of solitude, on removing the burdens of objects and relationships which weight you down, and living a life untethered and uncluttered.
“What kind of fucked up message is that?”
As philosophies go I’ve heard worse, and one of the strengths of Up in the Air is the film allows others to judge Ryan’s life, but never feels the need to do so itself. It may be a fucked-up worldview, but it has its own logic and certainly works well fro him. That solitude provides Ryan the necessary room, both physically and emotionally, to spend an average of 275 days a year firing complete strangers, as well as living most of his life among them.
To save money Ryan’s boss (Jason Bateman) grabs onto the ideas of young Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who is instituting a plan of grounding the company’s army of axe-men, incluing Ryan, in favor of a cost-cutting measure of terminating people remotely. This, as you may guess, doesn’t sit too well with our hero.
A challenge, of sorts, leads the unilikely pair on a road trip as Ryan tries to teach Natalie the ropes of the business and argue for a more personal appproach instead of the more impersonal choice of firing someone over the Internet. Along the way Ryan meets woman much like himself (Vera Farmiga), but with a vagina, equally obsessed with status, travel, and the lure of life on the road.
Their meeting in the hotel bar, where they discuss everything from rental cars to the mile-high club, could hardly be cuter. And the “morning after” which takes place well-before dawn as the pair traverse the myriad nature of their schedules looking for another rendezvous should bring a smile to your face.
At this point you may think the film is moving into romantic comedy territory, thankfully it’s not. Although his new relationships with Alex (Farmiga) and Natalie begin to soften his shell, the film never devolves into a sappy simple life-chaging experience trap it could all too easily have fallen into.
After all, Ryan and Natalie have a job to do. In some of the hardest scenes to watch Reitman inter-cuts actors (J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis) with real people giving honest reactions to learning they no longer have jobs. Each one of these individuals volunteered to recreate one of the hardest moments of their lives for the film, and, with a deft touch, Reitman expertly captures and weaves the raw emotion of each scenes into the film.
There’s one other storyline which I haven’t mentioned which involve Ryan’s estranged sister (Melanie Lynskey) and her wedding to a man he’s never met (Danny McBride). Ryan can hardly believe he’s being tasked to take pictures of a cardboard cut-out of the couple, in a variety of odd locations, much less take the time to make the trip back to northern Wisconsin for the wedding.
It’s where these threads come together – Ryan being pulled of the road, Natalie’s influence and prodding to become more connected to those around him, the burgeoning relationship with Alex, rethinking his philosophy of the “Empty Backpack,” and the need to reconnect with his family – that the film comes dangerously close to schmaltzy. However, it’s also in these moments where Ryan finds a new kind of peace in the company with others as opposed to the pleasures of solitude.
Reitman, who began working on the screenplay in 2002, makes some smart choices throughout, both great and small. At times the film delivers exactly what we expect, only to swiftly make a 180 degrees and defy the basic Hollywood convention and expectations.
Even as our hero begins to internally think over his life, the film never takes away his edge or try to instantly transform him into someone new. Though smooth in a crisis, he can often go short, especially with the protege he’s been saddled with. The film is never afraid to let Ryan be a jerk, self-involved, and spending most of his time thinking primarily about himself.
Although there is a love story between Alex and Ryan, the real love story is the love and joy of travel. The order to Ryan’s universe is expertly shown in quick cuts of suitcases being closed and loaded, cards swiped, hassle-free service, tickets scanned and cars provided. Ryan’s dreams aren’t marriage and children. His dreams are to keep flying, to accumulate enough frequent flyer miles to put himself into an elite class.
And with each new stop Ryan and Natalie fly Reitman provides an overhead shot of the city. It may seem like a small thing, but this gives each location, no matter how long or short they stay, a personality of its own.
In a year in which Clooney has played a fox, he’s even more sly here. Although rough around the edges, sarcastic, self-involved, and saddled with the job of firing thousands of people a year, Ryan is still a likable character who cares more than he ever lets on. But the film isn’t afraid to let Ryan be harsh and brutally honest with Natalie, at time bordering on cruel. It’s a testament to both Clooney’s charisma and Reitman understanding how far he can allow the character to go in each scene.
His two supporting ladies are also worthy of recognition. Kendrick is great as the young professional who finds herself quickly over her head and Farmiga provides a nice contrasting older woman’s perspective to Natalie’s idealism. There’s a scene where the three discuss relationships and the compromises with age that is both depressing and illuminating for Natalie. Although not necessary to the film’s plot, its one of those moments that allows you see into each character and make a few educated guesses as how you see things turning out.
I love everything about this film from the open credits looking down on the world from Ryan’s vantage point set to “This Land is Your Land” to the closing credits which inlcude a song sent to the director by unemployed man looking for a break. And the more I watch it (I’ve now seen it three times) the more I like it.
This isn’t a film which will wow you with special effects, or make some surprising leap in cinematic history. It doesn’t redefine the genre or set out to shock or awe. As memorable as some films which do those things are, they are usually quite hollow, and over time fade compared the luster of a film that not only is well-made but also connects with the audience on an emotional level. As High Fidelty‘s Rob Gordon would say: “It wasn’t spectacular either. It was just good. But really good.” To put it another way, if this film were a girl it might not be a supermodel, but it would be the girl you’d marry.
Up in the Air is not a happy movie. Although quite entertaining it isn’t afraid to take on hard subjects, and is filled with as much humor as it is raw emotion and pain. Happy moments don’t always last, but neither do the saddest and most lonely. If the film has a message perhaps its not to become lost in the moment but continue to move forward, strive, and live.
I’ve seen the film three time so far, and I’ll tell you I plan to watch dozens more over the years. If you want to take odds on the film ranking rather high on my best of the year list I’d say it would be a safe bet. It’s one of those films that just works, in every way possible. It’s just good. But really, really good.