Up in the Air

Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, is pretty much satisfied with his life, even though most people wouldn’t be. He works for a consulting company that fires people for other organizations. He goes to the corporate offices of these companies, sets up in an office, gives them the bad news and a packet, which explains their severance packages. Most people would find this job unpleasant to say the least, but Ryan is good at it, very professional and very skilled at getting people to see this experience as an opportunity as well as a setback. He never pretends that it doesn’t stink to get fired.

Ryan also likes to travel. Which is good because in this economy, his company’s business is booming and he’s traveling a lot.  He has the process of modern travel down to a science. His single carry-on is packed meticulously; he knows who to get behind in the security line; he can recommend the best hotels and restaurants in any city and he knows how to maximize his benefits and increase his air miles to an almost unprecedented level. He never uses his miles mind you; he just collects them.

This peculiar lifestyle requires what most others would consider a sacrifice. Ryan, middle-aged now, has never been married, doesn’t keep up with his sisters and only keeps a small one bedroom apartment. But he likes living this way. In fact, he gives motivational seminars on stripping yourself of material clutter and keeping other people at a distance. “We’re sharks,” he says, indicating that we have to keep moving.

His world is turned upside down when two women enter it. One is a fellow road warrior, Alex Goran, played by Vera Farmiga. Alex connects with Ryan because she is also into the science of travel. She knows how to pack a bag and appreciates the value of airline miles. They have a one night stand, but both want to continue the relationship.

The other is Natalie Keener, played by Anna Kendrick, a fresh-faced executive at Ryan’s company, hired directly out of Cornell, who has some new ideas, namely to do all the firing online via teleconferencing. This would ground Ryan permanently. He objects and the head of the company, Craig Gregory, played by Jason Bateman, sends Natalie out with Ryan for one last road trip so he can try to make his case that this task needs to be done in person.

Okay, let’s get it out of the way. With the possible exception of Tom Hanks, I don’t think there’s any film star more fun to watch than George Clooney. His comic timing is impeccable and he’s very good at showing vulnerability and  depth. Vera Farmiga’s reputation grows with every role. Here she plays a woman with many layers, some unsuspected. Anna Kendrick plays Natalie with nuance, whereas most young actresses would have made her one note.

And best of all these subtle performances reflect a subtle script. This movie could have easily been just about how we need other people to be close to. But it’s more complicated than that. Jason Reitman, the director and screenwriter with Sheldon Turner, shows us not only the costs of pushing people away, but also that there are costs associated with connecting to people. Natalie’s boyfriend dumps her via text while she’s on the road. She admits that she turned down a job in San Francisco to follow him to Omaha, where their company is located. Every lifestyle comes with compromises. Natalie gave up a dream for intimacy. Ryan gave up intimacy for a dream.

When I walked out of the film, I thought to myself, “That was a bit muddled.” But after thinking about it I realized what Reitman was saying. Up in the Air makes you think and not every film does that. This is one of the best of the year.


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December 2009
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