Up in the Air
Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick and Jason Bateman
Goes well with: Thank You for Smoking, Out of Sight, Michael Clayton
There's a stereotype about movies vying for top spots in awards season that Jason Reitman's new film, Up in the Air, just doesn't fit. It's not flashy. It isn't epic. And Sam Elliott has a role. But it's extremely well-written and terrifically acted, and it's wisely being released during a serious period of downsizing.
“[Satirist and novelist] Christopher Buckley once said to me that when a movie works best, it's a mirror,” Reitman, who previously made Thank You for Smoking and Juno, tells CityBeat. “I want that to happen. I try to, in my films, deal with subjects that people hold black-and-white points on. Like cigarettes or teenage pregnancy or the idea of living alone or firing people.”
That last part refers to Ryan Bingham, the character played by George Clooney in Up in the Air. Ryan spends the bulk of his time in airports, and when he gets to his destination, it's to take people he's never met into a conference room and fire them. Ryan loves what he does. No, he's neither a sadist nor a masochist, but he enjoys being on his own. He's beholden to no one, has no personal attachments and lives only to see his frequent flier miles grow. He's so good at what he does that he even delivers motivational speeches explaining that people's lives will be easier if they can empty the backpack that is their life, leaving behind the people or objects that slow them down.
But things are changing. His boss (Jason Bateman) informs him that the company is going to implement a cost-saving high-tech solution devised by a woman named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), which will take the termination procedure online. Yes, instead of face-to-face firings, the plan is to put the soon-to-be-unemployed in front of a monitor and have the conversation remotely. To stave off the future, Ryan takes Natalie on an extended business trip, designed to show her the human side of letting people go, and it's on that trip that he finds himself drawn to Alex (Vera Farmiga), another road warrior he trysts with when they're in the same city.
“Instead of making you feel safe with answers which are kind of bullshit, I'd rather use my movies to talk about the ambiguous questions that we have no answers for,” Reitman says. “Not to answer them or solve them, but to get a slightly better understanding of them. I'm dealing with male midlife crisis and female midlife crisis and people losing their jobs for no reason. The way technology is shaping our lives. These are situations where there is no one to get upset at—where you want to vilify someone, but there's no one to vilify.”
Clooney's a lock for a Best Actor nomination, working perfectly with a script co-written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner. He's at his absolute charmiest (charming + smarmy), certain that this is the right way of life for him. Ryan can take anything that anyone he's firing dishes out and still be personable because he has no need to take it personally. Sure, it's ironic that the guy who doesn't let people weigh him down is showing Natalie the human side of the job, but it works, and it allows you to see how good Ryan is at his job. It isn't that he's cut off from other people; he's constantly surrounded by them. But he doesn't need them to define who he is. So, when he suddenly finds himself with a wife-figure in Alex and a daughter-figure in Natalie, he starts wondering if maybe he's got it wrong.
Like Reitman's other films, Up in the Air is all about people in transition. But the transition Ryan's going through is more universally accessible, even for folks who have families. Reitman says this comes from “my own questions about why we exist and what our place is in the universe—my own search for purpose.”
No, Up in the Air doesn't provide answers, but it might make you think about what's in your own backpack. “The moment the film leaves you with is Ryan's first decision,” Reitman says, “and it's at that moment I turn it to the audience and ask, ‘What are you going to do with your life?'”
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