Jason Reitman has been the creative force behind two of the warmest, funniest, modern- savvy and thought-provoking comedies in the last five years (“Thank You For Smoking” and “Juno”). He continues this tradition with “Up in the Air,” one of if not the best film of 2009, which looks at life with a view from the top, the perspective of a man who lives out of his suitcase — and packs light. Devoid of commitment and responsibility in everything down to relationships, the story of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is cleverly smooth and will make filmgoers everywhere appreciate their own baggage.
Ryan Bingham fires people for a living. Gutless bosses outsource their layoffs to the company he works for, so he travels the country dropping traumatic news on countless people. As a frequent flyer, he has a secret goal of reaching 10 million miles on American Airlines. To him, the airport is home; he has no committed relationships or friendships and he gives lectures on how those are the things that weigh our lives down. Who better to play a free-wheeling middle-aged bachelor with a soulless job than Clooney? His suave looks and comic delivery make him an enviable and intriguing character despite that we’d never want to spend all that time in an airport let alone make people miserable every day.
Bingham’s life of traveling bliss gets an upgrade when he hooks up with fellow businesswoman Alex (Vera Farmiga), who shares his same passion for traveling nuance and sexually charged witticism. At the same time, a young up-and-comer in his company (Anna Kendrick) threatens his way of life when she proposes online video conference firing. In an effort to prove that would be a bad idea (and save his lifestyle), Bingham convinces his boss (Jason Bateman) to let him take her on his next set of trips so she can see what this work is really about.
Loosely adapted from a novel by Walter Kirn, Reitman and Sheldon Turner whip up a script that’s smart and hip yet familiar and easy to follow. It’s somewhat predictable, but in a good way — never cliché and all in the spirit of the story’s message. Bingham’s unique and isolated lifestyle serves as an ideal example for jump-starting a discussion of what’s most important in life — ultimately whether happiness can be achieved if life isn’t shared. The other characters provide other perspectives on this same essential question and further complicate Bingham’s own emotional journey as he questions his long-held beliefs.
Reitman’s genius as a director is in guiding us along fluidly through this contemplation. Being his third very good film, “Up in the Air” is now proof that no director takes his audience from comedy to heartfelt drama as seamlessly and gracefully as Reitman. The script is naturally funny, playing off our familiarity with airport travel for a variety of jokes, yet the next scene will be when Bingham’s firing someone and suddenly all this tension builds and sympathy and pity pours out of the audience for these poor people losing their jobs whom Reitman handles with such sensitivity given the tough economic context this film is being released in.
Other impressive elements of the film include Anna Kendrick’s performance as Natalie, a recent college grad who is a hard-nosed efficient type on the outside with an emotionally sensitive interior. Her trip with Ryan reveals to her that not everything in life can be planned for nor should it be. Kendrick handles one of those potentially cliché young person roles with class. She’s multi-dimensional including throwing her own bit of humor in with the many emotional highs and lows her character experiences. Farmiga also proves no marquee name was necessary. She’s sweet, a bit sassy and holds her own against the magnetic Clooney.
“Up in the Air” could fall into a rut of being all about travel humor and how always being on the go affects a person — or it could be about what it’s like having to fire people day in an day out, but all these elements are instead tied beautifully together to remind us how valuable relationships can be, no matter how big or how small. Reitman and this wonderful cast not only entertain us but also deliver that message as well as it’s ever been delivered.
“Up in the Air”
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Written by: Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner (screenplay), Walter Kirn (novel)
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick