Review – Up In The Air Movie / DVD
It usually takes time for Hollywood to release films that are truly of their eras. The global recession started in late 2007, only becoming frighteningly real in September of 2008. Director Jason Reitman began developing Up in the Air in 2002 after reading Walter Kim’s 2001 novel. Its timely release is pure luck. Up in the Air is a snapshot of right now. The film is a sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic look at the isolated life of corporate downsizer (or if you’d prefer, career transition counselor) Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who jets off across America firing corporate employees for spineless employers who can’t do it themselves. His other obsession is to gain ten million frequent flyer miles. Up in the Air is brilliant, poignant, hilarious, and an exceedingly more painful film than one would expect.
When Ryan Bingham isn’t sacking people, he’s giving motivational speeches extolling the virtues of his misanthropic life philosophy. According to Bingham, letting go of what ties people down (other people, places, things), is to truly be free. He lives to fly (“The slower we move the faster we die…moving is living.”) and on his travels he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a woman almost exactly like him. They start an informal relationship of sorts – nothing serious, nothing permanent. For Bingham, life couldn’t be better until new young co-worker Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) proposes that their company keep its career transition consultants at home base to fire people over the internet. This sends Bingham’s life into a tailspin. His boss (Jason Bateman), forces him to take Natalie on the road – or up in the air – with him to show how the job is done. Soon Bingham’s life is shaken up by Alex and Natalie, his two new life passengers.
Bingham is a man who has been fired from his own life because he’s been downsized by the people around him (“You are an escape…you’re a parenthesis”). He has no friends, he’s a stranger to his family. He barely comes home to his apartment, and even the neighbor he was sleeping with has moved on to a new boyfriend. There are no connecting flights in Ryan Bingham’s life – he simply flies direct, from person to person, employee to employee, airport to airport.
The film rises with its lead actors, and each one is smart, witty, if a little world-weary. George Clooney has been criticized for not completely disappearing into his roles often enough, but Clooney is a movie star, and it’s impossible for movie stars – who become more personalities than actors – to always be totally immersed in their roles. In one scene Bingham proclaims to Keener that he doesn’t want marriage or children and it becomes hard to see where Ryan Bingham ends, and where George Clooney begins. Bingham is a man you’d ordinarily loathe, but because it is Clooney playing him with his usual charm, you’re drawn in. The two female leads are brilliant actresses for Clooney to bounce off. Vera Farmiga plays Alex as jaded as Clooney plays Bingham, and she’s captivating, funny, tough. She’s a balance of strong and sexy. Farmiga is always so good that audiences and filmmakers tend to take her for granted. She makes it look easy, as if she’s, well, at cruising altitude. Anna Kendrick is the real revelation of Up in the Air. She isn’t a household name yet, but as Natalie, she’s professional, steely, and scarily efficient.
Shot on location at the height of the financial panic, the film reads like an ad for every corporation in America – like American Airlines, Apple, Hertz Corporations have taken over people’s lives. They employ them, transport them, fire them, and hold them hostage to their whims. The film’s characters are particularly obsessed with technology. Ryan Bingham can’t live without it, and through director Jason Reitman’s eyes, neither can we. After their first night together, Bingham and Alex set up another date, all while clicking away on their shiny silver laptops, typing each other into their stuffed schedules. They flirt long-distance not with phone calls, but with a series of short, clever text messages. Relationships become clicks and tweets. Letters, and really, all forms of communication reduced to emoticons and acronyms. No wonder Natalie thinks firing people over the internet is acceptable – corporations have become as slick and cold as their machinery. It’s easy for CEOs to ignore the havoc unemployment wreaks on people’s souls. An employee Bingham fires compares unemployment to death – his own.
America itself is really the film’s lead character. Jason Reitman (Juno) gives aerial shots of the great American landscape. The concrete and steel cities of America’s Midwest are an interconnected maze of superhighways. Each city (Las Vegas, Miami, Detroit, St. Louis, Omaha) has its own mood, but most of them are the glory of America’s once-industrial rustbelt. Most of these cities, with their staggering unemployment rates were built by industries and companies that have since packed up and left or crumbled entirely. Up in the Air is a uniquely American film with universal themes.
The film’s soundtrack adds to the mood of the film. Sad Brad Smith’s song, Help Yourself, was one of the most emotional and truly hopeful songs of 2009. It was ineligible for the Oscars, but it’s a song that captures our era as perfectly as the film does. Up in the Air is bittersweet, uncertain about the future, and nothing is neatly tied up. There are no real endings. Not in life, not in love, not in employment. There are always delays, cancellations, departures, but there is always a flight everyday, from anywhere to anywhere.
Review by S.I.