Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” – A brilliant and timely character piece

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate road warrior who spends over 300 days a year flying around the country firing people for a living. He spends his life in airports and hotels, brandishing an impressive collection of Executive Gold Club Cards as he bounces from one bastion of transient hospitality to the next.

“When I swipe my card”, Ryan informs us in the opening voiceover, “the system prompts her to say…”
“Pleasure to see you again, Mr. Bingham!” the clerk cheerfully announces.

Ryan is clearly in love with the road, in spite of (or perhaps because of) all the temporary trappings that come with it. The film’s treatment of air travel falls somewhere between Catch Me If You Can and Fight Club, and Ryan meets no shortage of single-serving friends along the way. One of these is Alex (Vera Farmiga), an enigmatic career gal who is on the road as often as Ryan. They bond after a brief hotel fling, and resolve to meet up the next chance they get.

And yet, those chances may soon come to an end, as Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a brash, young coworker, proposes to slash the company’s travel budget and switch to firing people via videoconferencing. Facing the end of his life on the road, Ryan reluctantly agrees to take her along to show her the reality of his business. And that reality is a dubious one.

“Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world has sat where you’re sitting,” intones Ryan as he fires a man named Steve (Zach Galifianakis, in a great cameo), “And it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it.”

This is a line we hear several times, and Clooney’s brilliant, tongue-in-cheek delivery leaves the audience constantly wondering whether or not he believes his own rhetoric. Indeed, his true motivation is one of the film’s central questions…

When Ryan isn’t passing out pinkslips, he makes appearances as a motivational speaker, advising people how to avoid connections in their lives. His message is clear – “moving is living”. He has a silver tongue, and would clearly say anything to convince Natalie why he should stay on the road. And yet as the film goes on, his firing scenes are peppered with what seem to be moments of genuine humanity. During one such scene, in which he fires a white-collar fifty-something named Bob (J.K. Simmons), Ryan gives a touching speech about what Bob needs to do in order to be admired by his kids.

And this may be the most provocative thing about Ryan. Whether or not he believes in his rhetoric, it has exactly the intended effect. Ryan has his own reasons for wanting to stay on the road (including a coveted number of frequent flier miles), but he constantly tries to impress upon Natalie how important and personal the moment of firing is. To hear him describe it, it sounds almost noble. They are the priests, administering the last rites to the doomed before they pass into oblivion, all the while assuring them that there is something bright and beautiful on the other side. “We are here to make limbo tolerable”, declares Ryan, and he is soundly mocked for it by Natalie.

The film constantly tries to have it both ways with Ryan. It is implied that he has had a multitude of one-night stands, and yet the very first one we see – Alex – is the one that might just turn serious. The film grants him semi-omniscient voiceovers that are equal parts self-aware and self-deprecating, but shies away from taking a position on whether he truly believes in what he’s doing. But somehow, Clooney’s performance just makes it all work. He plays with this ambiguity so well that the character is incredibly effective, especially in the interplay with his young colleague.

Still from Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air"

Natalie is a fascinating character – the consummate young career gal, ruthless and cynical, but with a very human side, full of all the self-imposed deadlines and anxiety about her future that all twenty-somethings tend to have. Anna Kendrick, who I’d only seen previously in a small and ineffectual role in the Twilight films, gives a masterful performance as Natalie, and is surely one of the actresses I’ll be watching for in the future.

It is only with the character of Alex that the film comes dangerously close to contrivance. She comes right out and tells Ryan to just think of her as “[himself], but with a vagina”, and assures him that she’s not a girl he needs to worry about. The character seems a bit facile at the beginning, but Vera Farmiga gives a fantastic performance. And as her relationship with Ryan develops, the character seems more and more plausible. And while it’s fairly easy to see where the story is going with this character, she does treat us to one of the film’s best scenes, in which Ryan and Alex share their views on love and marriage.

The script for Up in the Air, adapted by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner from a novel by Walter Kirn, contains some of the richest dialogue and most effective scenes I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year. The performances are also something to see. In addition to the three strong leads, Jason Bateman gives a impressive turn as Bingham’s boss – he’s a ruthless company shark with just a bit of a humorous streak to him, seemingly channeling Stephen Root in No Country for Old Men. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen from Bateman, and I was quite impressed.

We also see dozens of people being fired in this film, and most of them were quite convincingly played by real people who’ve lost their jobs during the recession. The film even includes an end-credits song that was seemingly performed on spec on the director’s answering machine. This could easily have come off as pandering to an audience in economic turmoil, but it just lends so well to the relevance and immediacy of this film.

While Up in the Air bears a few similarities to Reitman’s last bit of corporate satire, Thank You For Smoking, it has a much more somber tone. It retains the same darkly comedic style (and presents another fantastic soundtrack) while covering a lot more ground. It takes a great number of risks, but stops just short of spreading its characters too thin. And it is one of the finest films I’ve seen this year.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

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4 thoughts on “Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” – A brilliant and timely character piece

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