Up in the Air is a great movie. The script is sharp, Jason Reitman’s direction is astonishing, the cast is outstanding, and its story is as timely as its themes are timeless. The film is a strong awards contender but rather than tap into important figures or controversial issues, Up in the Air finds its hero in the most unlikely of people: Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) a man who loves air travel and whose job it is to lay people off because their bosses are spineless weasels. He’s turns both travel and firing into an art, but discovers that a simple and satisfying life can be just as fragile as a personal life he’d rather leave on the ground.
Ryan Bingham has a peculiar goal in life: reach 10,000,000 frequent flyer miles. He is the perfect flyer. He travels light, knows which airport security line to use, and ranks car rental services like most people would rank cars they actually want to own. He’s able to accumulate this kind of mileage and travel expertise by working for a company whose sole purpose is to send “termination specialists” to various businesses and fire people. This too is an art form for Ryan as he can spout the company’s meaningless platitudes to the recently downsized (I still don’t understand what, “Everyone who ever ruled an empire is sitting where you are right now,”; My world history is a little rusty but I believe no one ever fired Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great). Ryan uses his lifestyle as a way to push his gig as a motivational speaker where he argues, like some twisted Buddhist monk, that both possessions and people do nothing but weigh us down and make our lives shorter. Unfortunately for Ryan, people begin to enter his life as he starts to fall for kindred spirit Alex (Vera Farmiga) and provide field experience to neophyte Natalie (Anna Kendrick) who wants to turn the firing business digital, which would ground Ryan indefinitely by removing the need to travel.
The first half of Up in the Air almost sings with its light touch, funny dialogue, and breezy style. Where the film begins to slow up is congruent where Ryan begins to touchdown and tries to build a meaningful relationship with Alex and reconnect to his sisters. It can be slightly deflating to change gears so rapidly but the story necessitates it and it’s the only way to get to the meaningful third act that will stick with audiences after they leave the theater. It is rocky to go from such a light comedy to a contemplative drama but the payoff is worth it and it’s a cinematic case of doing what’s right for the film rather than trying to play into audience expectations for the easy cheer.
Almost everything else clicks perfectly. Farmiga once again shows that while other female actresses may get sexy photo spreads, she’s got talent to spare (that’s not to say she’s unattractive; when you see the film, note that she does not use a body double). The film provides a breakthrough performance for Kendrick and after this film she’s going to be high in demand, especially if she lands an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (an accolade already bestowed upon her by the National Board of Review earlier today). I’m not entirely sure if it’s reflected glory but she does a fine job of hitting her character’s emotional beats. Sadly, Kendrick disappears in the second half of the movie as do most of the small supporting roles from actors like Zach Galifianakis or J.K. Simmons who turn in some nice work despite only appearing in one scene.
But Clooney is a different story. The guy is talented as hell, but the question I found myself asking the second time I saw the film was this: would the role work as well or better if it were played by a character actor like Paul Giamatti? Clooney’s charm is undeniable but wouldn’t that open up Ryan’s world rather than keep it in the tight shell he’s constructed for himself? And why wouldn’t a guy as good-looking and charismatic as Clooney be confident? Would a performance of confidence from a character actor provided more depth? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but make no mistake: Clooney is the goods in this film.
The music, the cinematography, the editing are all aces with Reitman bringing it all together splendidly. It’s unfair that he should be this good at only his third film. Shouldn’t there be more of a learning curve? I know he’s the son of Ivan Reitman, but Reitman the Elder never directed films like Thank You for Smoking, Juno, or Up in the Air. When a director is this good at so young an age (when he was nominated for Best Director in 2007 for Juno, he was the youngest director to receive that honor), it’s terrifying to consider how much better he can be. Up in the Air lifts Reitman to one of the best directors working today.
There will always be films where the acclaim is completely undeserved or it’s difficult to see beyond the hype. Up in the Air is not one of those films. If you need any more convincing, it makes air travel look appealing and will have you cheering for a guy whose job is to bring misery into the world. It does both without sugarcoating and never looks down on its audience. Book your ticket now.
Rating —– A minus