Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman’s third feature film, is a moving coming-of-middle-age piece that is a beat for beat redux of the director’s Thank You for Smoking. This film would feel stale if it weren’t so damn refreshing. Searing wit and heart-rending reveals are just two reasons to see this film. George Clooney is another, and in a big way.
Tossed around as sex-symbol, superhero, goofball and playmate, Clooney steps up to the plate in this film to portray Ryan Bingham, a jet setting consultant whose sole purpose is to fire people at companies across the country. A frequent traveler, Bingham has bought into everything we always thought was so cool about flying. The compactness, the anonymity, the human ingenuity. Where most people cringe, he feels at home; and at home, he there are no traces of an existence. Only someone of Clooney’ charisma could make a vagabond look so put together.
But since this is a Jason Reitman film, Bingham is not as put together as he thinks. A part-time motivational speaker, Ryan’s conference shtick is a depressing speech about cutting the ties you have with loved ones and marrying one’s work. Dubbed “What’s in Your Backpack?”, his philosophy explains his lack of interpersonal relationships, but it doesn’t excuse it. When he meets Alex, played by a firey Vera Farmiga (who we didn’t like in Orphan), all that machismo flies out the window. Entering into a relationship of serial one- night stands at airports across the continent, Ryan finally has someone to care for, which will inevitably lead to his undoing.
There is another level to this film, an economic statement that is glancingly poignant, but more or less timeless. Each time Ryan fires someone, the film takes on a documentary feeling, taking the pulse of a tattered economy. Perhaps the film will be more popular in a time when people are losing jobs in droves, but Mr. Reitman seems to be thinking bigger. Losing one’s job is a massive moment for any one person in any time. It is a very personal time of reflection and self evaluation, and this film hits the nail on the head. Ryan is the best at getting people to stop being angry and start moving forward with their lives. This idea, pretty much non-existent in the real corporate world, is a very interesting take on what many people fear as their darkest hour.
Up in the Air is rife with great performances. Anna Kendrick is hilarious as the squeaky Natalie Keener, Ryan’s young competition. Her deadpan is brilliant, delivering Reitman’s choice dialogue with an even sharper tongue than Ellen Page as Juno. After being the only redeeming part of New Moon, she really shines in this film. Also surprising in this film is Danny McBride, the oafish comedian best known for his role on HBO’s East Bound and Down. Here, he sets aside his douchebag hat long enough to eek out a moving, albeit predictable, performance. Jason Bateman joins in the mix with his weirdest costume to date, and J.K. Simmons delivers a quick little gem.
All in all, Up in the Air is a basic grown-up lovelorn-tale sprinkled with timely nuance. It’s not necessarily a huge leap for Reitman or Clooney, but rather both setting up to do what they each do best. And that is okay in my book. We’re probably looking at an Oscar contender here, which is fine. In another era this film might be considered average, but today it will really shock people given how tight it is. In other words, Jason Reitman is fast becoming one of the more refined active American filmmakers, albeit one who gravitates toward the same simple story. He will only get better with time.