Saturday, January 9, 2010

Up in the Air

Ryan Bingham loves his job. He loves the freedom, loves the travel and loves the opportunity to discuss his worldview with the people he meets. His line of work takes him around the country, stopping in major cities to conduct employee layoffs on behalf of bosses too cowardly to do the job themselves; in each scenario, Ryan soothes the terminated employee with warm but blatantly rehearsed speeches about unfulfilled potential and the newly created opportunity to chase one's dreams. He's a perverse motivational speaker and professional end-of-life care rolled into one, a priest who gives the last rites and gently assures the dying that there is indeed a heaven. Played by George Clooney, Ryan can't help but ooze disarming charisma, and Up in the Air suggests that some of Clooney's slick screen presence might be snake oil.

Spending all of his time in airports, hotels and offices has taken a psychic toll on Ryan: he enjoys living life out of a carry-on bag (checked luggage requires you to be at the airport 35 minutes earlier, costing him a week of his life for every year on the job) and even gives motivational speeches on the virtues of freeing oneself from the burdens of possessions and relationships. Underneath his warm rapport with the people he fires is the coldness with which he deliberately isolates himself from the world.

Up in the Air, the third feature by Jason Reitman, is primarily about the challenge to Ryan's ascetic philosophy, presented in the form of two relationships, one he casually courts and the other forced upon him by his occupation. He meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), another frequent flyer who lives by a similar code of conduct as Ryan, and they engage in casual sex when they happen to cross paths during their constant shuffle across these great United States. They compare notes on the best places to grab a quick bite and the membership cards that offer the best rewards. Their attraction is immediate, but both agree not to take it further than a casual level.

The second person who suddenly enters Ryan's life is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, one of the few bright spots in the Twilight films); fresh out of college, Natalie proposes massive shifts in Ryan's company that would stop sending people like Ryan to businesses and instead conduct layoffs via Web chats, thus cutting out nearly all of Career Transition Counseling's travel budget and streamlining the corporation. Reitman's decision to set a film about the current job situation in the point-of-view of those doing the firing is bold enough, and Natalie's technological, hyper-efficient overhaul of CTC reveals that even those who fire the stragglers of the world's increasing automation are themselves becoming obsolete. Ryan attacks this plan and tells Natalie that she doesn't know a thing about firing people, so their boss (Jason Bateman, channeling just a bit of the jerk he played in Juno) has Natalie travel with Ryan for a while to give her some experience.

Kendrick's plucked eyebrows and icy stare provide a sharp, often humorous, contrast for Clooney's lopsided grin and his expressive eyes (seriously, forget the smile; the man's got the best eyes in the biz). Natalie makes a fool of herself in her first round of termination sessions, her rigidly formulated plan for firing people disintegrated when faced with an actual human response; is, though, Ryan's warm and consoling tone that much different? His lines are just as rehearsed as hers, but he delivers them more naturally, and his own lines are the result of years of practice with people, so what is unpredictable and terrifying for Natalie is but one of several general types of responses Ryan hears every day. In one of the funnier segments, he teaches Natalie about the benefits of carry-on bags over luggage and discards items in her suitcase that won't fit in the smaller bag and simply take up room, reminiscent of an Army pro removing unnecessary items from a rookie's gear. He derides Natalie's heartless business model, but she rightly points out that his philosophy is openly hostile to human connections, for building "a cocoon of self-banishment" around himself.

In only a short time, Reitman lets us get to know these characters: Ryan tells Natalie about his one goal in life -- collecting frequent flyer miles -- and she sits, abashed, as he explains that he could get his name put on a plane if he collects 10 million. "You guys don't grow up" she rants; "It's like you need to pee on everything." Natalie's cold, theoretical professionalism belies a barely contained emotionality; when her boyfriend dumps her via text message (ironic considering her proposal for electronic termination), she confesses to Ryan and Alex that she only moved to Omaha and got a job at CTC to be with him and that, for all her business-oriented plans, she most wants a family. Ryan, on the other hand, is instantly likeable and treats everyone like a buddy, but his private life is solipsistic and vacant. Naturally, the two become counterpoints for each other, the older professional teaching the inexperienced rookie the full impact of her job while Natalie attempts to parlay Ryan's gift in the meeting room -- such as assuaging a late-middle-age pink slip recipient (J.K. Simmons) by reminding him that he minored in French cuisine and is the sort of person who'd become trapped in desk work years ago and now had the chance to follow his dream -- into actual humanity.

Exploring the area between them is Alex. Farmiga gained exposure through The Departed, albeit in a role that offered nothing for her or any other actresses despite playing a part that condensed two roles from the Hong Kong films that inspired Scorsese's flick. Funnily enough, she essentially plays two roles here, a humanistic soul who tempts Ryan with his first serious thoughts of love and the horrific embodiment of his anti-romantic philosophy. She acts as the link between Natalie and Ryan, and it's darkly amusing to see Ryan's horror when confronted with either aspect of her character even as he falls for her. For Natalie, Alex offers a sobering portrait of what could happen if she continues to sacrifice her dreams. It's a delicate part, and Farmiga's ability to keep her character's true self ambiguous until the end places her near or at the front of the pack for this year's Best Actress race.

I managed to avoid reading a single review for Up in the Air and avoiding all the hype it was possible to ignore, a feat, given the circumstances, almost as impressive as Ryan's goal of reaching 10 million frequent flyer miles. Of course, one can't help but catch shards of opinions, and the general consensus seems to think that Reitman taps into the zeitgeist of the current economic fallout. I remain unconvinced; Reitman has been working on an adaptation of Walter Kirn's 2001 novel almost as long as its been on the shelves, and the references to the recent collapse occasionally stick out like sore thumbs. After spending most of the film explicitly mentioning the difficulty of job hunting in the current climate, one character receives a job on the basis of a letter of recommendation that is short, vague and wouldn't be accepted by a high school career adviser on behalf of a student, much less a major company looking for an executive.

Far more interesting are the lives of the three main characters, relevant to contemporary issues facing society but not defined by them. If Reitman does not convincingly parlay the interesting perspective on the financial crisis into a weighty commentary on it, he at least crafts an interesting and layered multi-character study, featuring three of the best performances of the year. Reitman succeeds best at examining the mindset of these characters and the haunting tragedy of these financial times through his direction, much improved over his somewhat lackadaisical take on Cody's script for Juno: Up in the Air moves through an isolated world, defined by dimly lit, sparsely occupied hotel lobbies, electronic ticketing booths and empty office workrooms where Ryan and Natalie sit deflated among scattered, empty chairs that likely lost their masters that day; one shot, of Ryan through his hotel room, looks as if it came right out of Let the Right One In, a film that perfectly captured feelings of loneliness and isolation. The penultimate scene, a brief montage of the fired employees -- actual non-actors who'd been recently laid-off that Reitman cast in the film -- who disprove Ryan's erstwhile outlook on life by telling the camera how the love of friends and family saw them through the stress and uncertainty of unemployment; it's a moment that recalls less the headlines making the news than the final shot of Schindler's List, where Spielberg showed us those who survived a horrible ordeal. That moment is worth more than Reitman's nearly on-the-nose dialogue about the economy combined.


  1. "Far more interesting are the lives of the three main characters, relevant to contemporary issues facing society but not defined by them."

    Yup, that pretty much summed up my feelings on the proceedings as well (although it led to me giving it a * less than you did).

    Reitman's films never really work on deep issues -- he seems like a great director in regards to getting good performances from his actors, but I never get the feeling he is concerned with anything more than surface level thought into the themes of his films. I've enjoyed all three of his films, but none of them have stood out as any kind of sign of greatness.

  2. It's always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained! I'm sure you had fun writing this article. Excellent entry!

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  4. A well-acted piece about a man's inability to cope with a world more real than the one he lives. And the screenplay just keeps on getting better and better. Nice review, check out mine when you can!