Up in the Air
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” stars out as a wicked comedy about the current state of the American economy, which feels a lot like the winking frankness of his “Thank You for Smoking,” slowly morphs into a sweet unexpected (and unexpectedly honest) romance, like his “Juno,” dips dangerously, dangerously close to an unwanted sentimentality, and ends on a perfect note of purgatorial irony that ensures it will be remembered as both a parable of our troubled economic times, and a Sturges-does-Dante contemplation of human connectivity, and the self-inflicted stasis we can unwittingly (or somewhat wittingly) put ourselves in. It’s one of the best films of the year.
George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a hatchet-man-for-hire, who merrily flies about the country firing employees from various companies. He is a master at his job, understands the needs people have when getting fired, and can finesse them, with some personal decorum, into unemployment. That the people featured in the firing montages were actual unemployed citizens, and not extras from Central Casting, give these scenes an immediate and personal feeling; what we are seeing is not being sugarcoated.
Ryan also loves being on planes. He spends nearly 300 days a year on planes or in airports, and has adapted fully to the lifestyle, learning how to pack light, take advantage of frequent-flier programs, and enjoy every last hotel, motel, airport lounge, and amenity that airlines throw in. He wants to accrue enough miles to be accepted into a club so elite, that there are only 6 other members. Indeed, Ryan has learned to hate the ground, and deliberately remains distant from his family. He rarely sees his boss (Jason Bateman). The one human connection he seems to have is the glowing kindred spirit Alex (the excellent Vera Farmiga) a woman who flies as often as he does, and who knows how to make the best of a literally fly-by-night relationship. It’s refreshing to see a female character who is sexually empowered, believable, and presented as hope for a better life.
Ryan’s ethos is, however, shaken up when a twentysomething hotshot at his company suggests that Ryan’s job be done online, rather than in person. Ryan takes this hotshot (played by Anna Kendrick from “Rocket Science”) to actual companies to demonstrate why being there in person is important to what he does. Also, so that he can cling to what he has for a little while longer. Irony there? That the firer may be made obsolete?
As the film progresses, and the Kendrick character begins t challenge Ryan’s perception of love, connection and the world, Ryan begins to see that he could make a future for himself on the ground, perhaps with Alex. That his shrill sister (Melanie Lynsky) is getting married only compounds his thoughts.
I won’t reveal what happens to him, but I will say that the film ends on the perfect note. Like all that led up to it, there has been little sentimentality, no contrived moments or familiar Hollywood dramatic climaxes. There is a race through an airport to a loud love ballad, but that seems appropriate, given the setting of most of the film, and the payoff is not what you would expect. The film is ultimately about how we build worlds for ourselves when we’re young, tear them down when we age, build new ones we claim to be free from, when, in fact, we may not be free after all.
Sorry if that sounds abstract, but I assure you, it feels perfect. Perhaps a note tragic, but perfect.