Up In the Air


Firing on the Fly

Main Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick

Director: Jason Reitman

Something that strikes me about a lot of the movies coming out lately is that they star actors to whom I can relate.  Yeah, that’s just a euphemism for “they are as old as me”.  Remember, old in Hollywood can be 25 and those of us with a few Up in the Air Postermore years under our belts can get to feeling a touch left out of the game.  Not in 2010.  The darling of the Golden Globe nominees was Up in the Air, a sort-of-romantic-comedy starring George Clooney.  Clooney was 48 years old and as charming as ever.

Up in the Air tells the story of Ryan Bingham (Clooney).  Ryan’s job keeps him on the road about 10 months out of the year and that’s exactly how he likes it.  Airports and hotels and business class flights are where he feels most at home.  In between trips he fires people for a living.  Not the most glamorous of jobs, some would even say reprehensible, but one that he does with more than a modicum of caring and dignity.  He also gives the occasional lecture on avoiding commitment in one’s life.  He definitely knows of what he speaks, he has absolutely no attachments, material or emotional.

What Ryan doesn’t count on as he blissfully racks up frequent flyer miles and elite traveler’s status is that some day he might have to come down.  Down is Omaha, where his company is based.  A company that is considering a young upstart’s idea that would completely change Ryan’s job and his life.  Ryan gets tasked with taking this upstart, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), out on the road and showing her the ropes of being a hatchet man.  Or woman.  Along the way he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga) with whom he shares…all sorts of things.

Up in the Air relies upon two core relationships.  One between Ryan and Natalie and one between Ryan and the world (sometimes represented by Alex, sometimes by his boss, sometimes by his sisters).   The first is played brilliantly.  Clooney and Kendrick have plenty of non-sexual chemistry and their tug-of-war is more generational than situational.  Kendrick plays Natalie with a perfect balance of the over-confidence of youth, the false bravado of a smart young person at their first job and the vulnerability of age 23.

Ryan and the world is a far more complicated relationship to depict.  We see that he has isolated himself from almost everything, but that he doesn’t seem callous or indifferent toward others.  He’s alone but not usually terribly lonely – it’s only when he gets caught up in someone else’s notion of the direction a “good life” must take that he finds himself unhappy.  Clooney plays this character as effortlessly as if he were playing himself (which if you think about it, he kind of is).  He’s handsome and charming and aloof enough to roll as a single unit in a multi-unit world.  He gets worn down by his job and it shows, his face sags, his posture slumps.  He’s a good actor and very good in medium-lightweight roles that require charisma with enough edge to keep us invested in both character and story.  Director Jason Reitman knows what he’s doing with an actor of this caliber and lets Clooney do his thing.  Ryan comes through as slightly paternalistic, a little sad and a little worn, but also mostly content with his unusual life choices.  The bumps he encounters in the film are not epiphanies, they’re bumps – maybe they’ll change his life and maybe not.  Just like regular people when their comfortable routines are disrupted.

Up in the Air‘s characters go through the same sorts of inner turmoil as the people they fire.  Which, of course, is one of the underlying points.  As we watch Ryan fumble through his life changes, we see the newly unemployed react to their terminations and we understand each a little better.  Ryan is channeling the crippling uncertainty that comes with abrupt cessation of a longstanding way of life.  He is exactly like those fired employees in all but losing a paycheck.  He’s just as much adrift and insecure – but for him those emotions are so foreign that it takes time for him to even recognize them.  His speeches to his “clients” are just as apt for his own life as theirs and to the filmmakers’ credit, they let it all play out.  If you’re looking for standard romantic comedy, you’re bound to be disappointed.  Reitman and company have something to say – about the economy, about isolation, about changing life mid-stream.   They aren’t looking to make you say, “Awwwwwww”, and leave the theater feeling all warm and gooey about the goodness of the human condition.  If you get over that before you walk in, you’ll be fine.

Up In the Air is a good movie.  I wouldn’t call it a great one.  But I enjoyed it for the terrific performances from Clooney and Kendrick and for the novel way that Reitman weaves his social commentary into a romantic comedy formula, turning it all sorts of sideways in the process.  If you’re looking for typical, look elsewhere.  But if you’re in the mood for some Clooney charm in a rather novel package, give it a go. 4 stars out of 5.


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