You remember those guys in Office Space that everyone was afraid of? The ones that were tasked with firing the useless employees after giving them an assessment on why exactly they were useless? Well, Up in the Air is about one of those guys…except this time he lacks a mustache, wears a dress shirt with sleeves and is played by George Clooney rather than Dr. Cox from Scrubs. Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a “termination facilitator” that takes care of the messy stuff when corporate America decides they need to downsize…and in this economy, there’s a lot of that happening. It’s not the most pleasant of jobs but Bingham makes the best of it…heck, at first observation, he appears to even enjoy it.
As one can imagine, firing people results in a lot of uncomfortable situations with people angry and disheartened, crying about what they’re going to do about paying bills or explaining the situation to their families. Bingham has this down to a science, probably through years of experience and a lack of emotional attachment, not only to his job but to pretty much everything. Bingham is one of those people that doesn’t really stay put anywhere for too long. Sure, he has an apartment but it is barely more than a box and he loathes the six weeks a year he has to spend there. His family thinks of him as a stranger, his secretary is instructed to deflect all means of communication and the only place Bingham really feels at home is on an airplane, where he is nearing the milestone of ten million (yes, million) frequent flyer miles.
Bingham cruises through the airport with ease, checking in, shopping at the duty free and sipping cocktails at the lounge without skipping a beat. Of course, he wouldn’t be able to bring carry-on onto an airplane with the new ridiculous regulations in place after Christmas but that’s beside the point. He learns the fastest and most convenient ways to eliminate the stress most of us feel when we have to head to the airport. Don’t check in any bags since that’s a heck of a lot of time lost waiting at the carousel. Line up at security behind Asians as we get in and out of our shoes easy and pack light (rather true, actually). Bingham floats through all these modern obstacles like a butterfly (…and I can’t think of anything clever to say about bees or stinging).
Bingham is also a part-time motivational speaker, who emphasizes the freedom of not having anything, including family, friends and non-mobile possessions, to weigh him down. That isn’t to say he is entirely isolated. Along the way, he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), another frequent traveler like himself and they quickly connect over hotel lounge cocktails and a comparison of all their exclusive traveler club membership cards. We also have Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a new employee at Bingham’s firm who threatens to revolutionize his job through telecommunication, which would effectively destroy the need for him to spend the majority of his time on the road. Despite his objections, Bingham is tasked with showing Natalie the ropes of the job.
Up in the Air is the latest from Jason Reitman, director of great films such as Thank You for Smoking and one of my favorite movies of 2008, Juno. Although I admit that Diablo Cody’s script does not age well, there’s no denying Reitman’s talent in making interesting stories that are mostly rooted in reality.
I’d say the performances here are flawless but none of the roles are really much of a stretch for any of the principle cast. George Clooney is classic George Clooney here. Although he doesn’t do anything morally wrong such as tobacco lobbyists, he undoubtedly has one of the most detestable jobs known to man. However, it is difficult to not like Bingham as it is clear that he wants to make the firing process as easy as possible and does it in a strangely charming way.
Vera Farmiga smolders on screen, sexy and warm without being obvious about it. Alex is very straight-forward attractive in a no-BS way, something that appears to even surprise Bingham. It’s quite clear they’re meant for each other from the beginning as they roll out of bed and schedule their next rendezvous on their laptops, making sure it doesn’t clash with their current itineraries and that no strings are attached anywhere.
Anna Kendrick plays enthusiastic employee well, starting out like an overactive squirrel but showing some real emotional chops as the job starts to wear on her as it would any normal human being. Watching her cut loose from the day-to-day, worker bee attitude was hilarious as are her scathingly honest “complements” to Alex and Ryan, who she regards as “old”.
Up in the Air draws obvious comparisons for me to a pre-crazy Tom Cruise classic, Jerry Maguire, a film about a man who is 100% absorbed in his job but eventually warms up to his companions who, sometimes unintentionally, show him the value of human companionship. However, Up in the Air is a much smarter movie, relying on performance and plot rather than pulling on obvious heartstrings.
It is hard to describe why Up in the Air is such a great film. In fact, I think it is sure to be on the short list for Best Picture when the Oscars roll around in a couple months. At first glance, the premise seems like it would be snore-fest but the script is witty and dusted with irony. There’s very, very few if any moments in the film’s near two hours that aren’t engaging. Reitman deftly tells an entertaining story that keeps us emotionally invested without emphasizing elements of the film that would turn it into a contrived romantic comedy. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s a comedy despite having some genuinely funny moments. The ending is a bit of a twist and perhaps an unexpected shock for the viewer as Reitman isn’t complacent in simply making another one of “those” movies. My only real knock on the movie is that the start is slightly better than the finish.
Go see Up in the Air. It’s a wonderful film that shows one of this generation’s actors at his finest and proves Reitman may just be one of the best emerging directors in recent memory.
Verdict: 9.5 out of 10