A couple of movies came to mind after I watched writer/director Jason Reitman’s wonderful Up in the Air. The first was Jerry Maguire, another funny drama about a man very comfortable in his career who faces an existential crisis. That film, like this one, features a display of movie star acting that will never get the acclaim heaped on showier method roles but is every bit as deserving.
The second film was Broadcast News, James L. Brooks’ classic about three TV journalists and their professional and romantic entanglements. It’s not so much plot or technique that invited the comparison but an overall tone of realism and respect, a sense that these are movies made by adults for adults, a Hollywood rarity.
Reitman, 32, has quickly and quietly emerged as one of the finest filmmakers of his generation. He’s made three films — Thank You For Smoking and Juno before this one — and each has been better than the last. Barring a major upset, he’s soon to receive his second Best Director Oscar nomination in three years. Soon people will be asking Ivan if he’s Jason’s dad rather than the other way around.
Based on a 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney, never better), a man who makes a living traveling the country and firing people. As you can imagine, business right now is very good.
Bingham is happy only when he’s on the move. He’s comforted by the structure and monotony of air travel, the same things the rest of us dread. In a way he’s the flip side of Carl Fredricksen in Up. Carl longed for the grounding force of his late wife while Ryan wants to remain perpetually airborne.
Clooney was born to play this role and delivers his best performance to date. He brings all of his movie star shine to the charismatic Ryan but the grey hair and laugh lines are front and center. Confident and suave as he is while preaching his gospel of detachment, he can’t mask a palpable sense of sadness. He knows exactly what he wants only because he doesn’t know any better.
Ryan’s life is complicated by two women. First he meets Alex (the wonderful Vera Farmiga), a sexy fellow traveler who shares his love of frequent flier miles, corporate perks and casual relationships. “Think of me as you with a vagina,” she teases, and they arrange to meet up whenever their criss-crossing schedules allow. Farmiga has the film’s sketchiest major role — she is more something that happens to Ryan than a fully fleshed-out character — but she inhabits it beautifully and is worthy of a supporting actress nod.
The other woman is Natalie, a recent college grad whose idea to handle layoffs via video conference rather than face to face presents a direct challenge to Ryan’s way of life. He takes her on the road to show her the harsh realities of the job, intent on making her earn her wings before she’s allowed to clip his.
Natalie is played by 24-year-old Anna Kendrick, best-known as Bella’s friend in the Twilight movies, and she’s a revelation. Smart, funny and uptight, she’s the sort of character we’ve seen before (think a younger version of Holly Hunter in Broadcast News) but Kendrick never allows her to become a stereotype. At times the gravity of her job catches up with her and Kendrick shows it all in her eyes as Natalie struggles to keep up her neutral facade.
These characters bounce off of each other in delightful and unexpected ways. In one scene, the film’s best, Natalie explains her faltering life plans to the older duo (“I was supposed to be driving a Grand Cherokee by now”) and receives some words of wisdom, aching with resignation. Reitman’s dialogue is crisp and hilarious (“You’re so beautiful,” Natalie tells Alex, “You’re exactly how I want to look in fifteen years”) and the actors savor it like fine wine.
One of Reitman’s choices that has received a lot of press is his use of non-actors, people recently laid off, in brief interviews that bookend the film. It’s a nice touch, bringing relevance and resonance to the film. Up in the Air walks a fine between respecting the emotional upheaval of the newly unemployed and using their situations as the backdrop of a damn funny movie. Reitman smartly never plays the firings for easy laughs… some contain humor, but it’s real and raw, not manufactured.
Ultimately, the nagging awareness of our current unemployment crisis that creeps into the film like a thick mist serves to underscore the movie’s central theme: at our most vulnerable moments, we need the comfort of loved ones to hold us in place.