In the utterly enjoyable Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate down-sizer. Like a gun for hire, Ryan is kept on retainer to deliver pink slips instead of bullets; though some might argue there is little difference. Ryan has no personal relationships, rarely sleeps in the same city two days in a row, can fit everything important to him into a carry-on and he could not be happier.
Midway through the movie, Ryan explains that he is on the road traveling over 322 days of the year. That may sound awful to most of us, but to him “that means 43 miserable days at home.” That statement is perfectly indicative of how Ryan sees the world.
He doesn’t like attachments of any sort, human or material. He has a better relationship with the airline ticket agent than his own sisters, and prefers the tidiness and order he finds in all the rituals of traveling to anything authentic. He has the perfect job that by nature requires a skilled detachment.
Ryan is disgusted when Natalie, a hot shot straight out of grad school (played by Anna Kendrick), is brought onto his company and immediately tries to implement a plan to fire workers via video chat. Ryan is horrified that his traveling lifestyle is genuinely threatened, and he thinks the approach is too impersonal. He cares about the process (not necessarily the people) and believes that a proper firing ought to be done with respect, in person, to leave the worker with at least a modicum of dignity.
The boss (Jason Bateman) orders Ryan to take Natalie on the road to show her the ropes. Despite their differences, Ryan develops a fatherly friendship with Natalie, and she teaches him a few life lessons along the way. Her tightly wound personality makes for some great comedic moments. Fortunately the film doesn’t take the typical route and throw them into a May-December romance cliché, it’s strictly business and friendship between these two.
Natalie starts questioning what the company is doing to these people after sitting through a few emotional firings. “This is what we do. We take people at their most vulnerable and set them adrift,” Ryan quips.
Enter Vera Farmiga as Alex. Ryan starts chatting with her in an airport lounge, and is amazed to find his female equal when it comes to all things travel. As the night unfolds, they share frequent-flyer tips, spar over the best rental car companies, and finally throw their literal cards on the table for one another to look at.
Discussing all their miles is just verbal foreplay, and the evening culminates with Ryan pulling out his highly coveted, but rarely seen, carbon fiber credit card. Alex is putty in his hands after that sly move, and the two embark on an affair.
What really sets this movie apart from others is the superb acting. George Clooney, Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga all got well deserved Golden Globe nominations for acting. Clooney is always reliable, but here he is just so effortless, and smooth. He possesses the cocky swagger of Ryan, but he shows some emotional vulnerability as well.
He always looks slightly bemused at his surroundings, particularly as he gets to know Natalie. She wears her emotions on her sleeve, and then some, so his befuddlement is understandable. Anna Kendrick is amazing. I didn’t even recognize her as the whiny and immature Jessica from the Twilight series.
She initially has an icy exterior, but slowly her layers are peeled back and we see a girl who so believed in the romantic notion of love that she followed her college boyfriend to his crappy little midwest hometown and put her career on hold. It’s wholly relatable as one of those rites of passage so many women experience.
Vera Farmiga is beautiful in an unconventional way, and I like to see her in movies because she is much more than your typical barbie doll starlet. She has real depth, and the self-assurance that the role requires. You need an actress who can hold her own with Clooney, and Farmiga delivers. You completely believe he would be captivated by this woman for her looks, brains, and talent.
Essentially, the movie is about Ryan slowly realizing that making human connections is what makes life worth living. The tone of the movie reminded me a lot of Lost in Translation, another film I loved.
This is the third movie directed by Jason Reitman, who also wrote the screenplay. His previous efforts include the criminally under-appreciated Thank You For Smoking, and Juno. Here the director shows obvious growth, he is sharper, and more focused. My favorite visuals of the entire film are when Reitman focuses on the small details of travel-the way a packed suitcase swivels on its wheels, or the routine of going through the metal detector.
This film is starting to gain momentum (and headlines) as the awards slowly start trickling in. Believe the hype. It’s that good.