Up in the Air (2009) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language and some sexual content
Running time: 109 min.
Cast: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, Danny McBride
Cameo: J.K. Simmons, Sam Elliott, Zach Galifianakis
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenplay: Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner (based on the novel by Walter Kim)
Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking) continues his ascent as one of the best directors working in the comedy field today with his erudite and insightful Up in the Air, a timely story, very loosely based on the Walter Kim novel, in an era of massive layoffs that manages to bring into perspective just what jobs mean to the people who perform them, and ultimately what's really important in life despite them.
George Clooney (Burn After Reading, Leatherheads) stars as Ryan Bingham, a plane-hopping hatchet man who works for a company that specializes in layoffs. When downsizing companies have employees to layoff, Ryan is flown in to deliver the bad news to the newly dismissed, offering up a severance package and trying to minimize the emotional damage that severance causes, both for the ex-employee as well as the company trying to avoid conflict. In these tough economic times, business is bad, which means business is very, very good for Ryan. And Ryan loves his carefree ways. Whenever he feels lonely, he can strike up a conversation with a woman such as the oft-traveling Alex (Farmiga, The Departed) and have some no-strings companionship. No nagging wife, no kids to hassle with, a new locale every day of the week, and complete freedom to live as he pleases -- it's the perfect life for a confirmed bachelor.
But even though business is good, times are a-changin', even in his industry. Enter 23-year-old upstart Natalie Keener (Kendrick, Twilight), the green but very smart and ambitious new hire in the company who has come up with a new way of doing business at only a fraction of the cost. Natalie's solution is to video conference with the layoffs, allowing their agents to perform the duties of their job while still having the semblance of a normal life at a centralized locale, while saving the company millions in travel and hotel costs. Ryan is repulsed by the idea of giving up his cushy perks, voicing his outrage at this impersonal approach to doing business with his boss, Craig (Bateman, State of Play). Craig gives Ryan a chance to prove otherwise by letting Natalie tag along on his trips and get some actual layoffs in under her belt to learn how it's done.
Nicely played by all of the actors, particularly by Clooney in a masterfully subtle portrayal of a professional who finds that an untethered life does indeed have a few drawbacks. One wonders how he might handle a layoff when his entire life is his job. Through his interactions with his newfound friend (with privileges) Alex and his tagalong Natalie, as well as a rare visit to see his family later in the film, he has the semblance of companionship, and while only a fleeting one, we can sense there is a certain loneliness underneath the devout loner persona. The supporting actresses impress as well, with Formiga giving an intelligent sexiness to her role to match Clooney's, while Anna Kendrick turns in a fine comedic performance as the hyper-ambitious recruit who is too busy dissecting the data to prepare herself for the harsh realities that life has to offer.
One part occupational satire, one part buddy movie, one part family dramedy, Up in the Air tells a complete story arc in parts, but adds up to a satisfying whole wrapped around the theme that it's the connections we make with people that count much more than what we do for a living. For those recently laid off, these themes should hit home in a way a severance package never could, and almost necessitates a viewing for a dose of commiseration mixed with a heaping helping of hope. It should also stir to action those stuck in jobs they despise, as there is another underlying theme that settling in to a job just because it pays the bills isn't nearly as fulfilling as following one's dreams, which contrasts sharply with Ryan's side job as a motivational speaker who encourages his listeners to eschew all of those familial, marital and material entanglements that slow you down from constant forward progress.
It's not an entirely unpredictable film, as key payoff moments are telegraphed ahead of time. While conventional at times in its story structure, Reitman's delivery is refreshingly told, with spirit and a rich sense of its characters, such that, even if you're sure you know where the story will lead, the depth of feeling these moments evoke still surprises you. An apropos film in these troubled times, Up in the Air represents Reitman at the peak of his powers, crafting a funny, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and poignant tale that's so smooth it appears effortless and so simple in its approach it belies the film's enduring thematic complexities.
©2010 Vince Leo