Up in the Air is sentimental, but that doesn’t mean it’s simplistic. In fact, the movie plays at some interesting contradictions. It is a genuinely funny movie about genuinely depressing times.
If directing is 90% casting, then just three movies into his career, Jason Reitman has mastered 90% of directing. His movies may rely too heavily on mopey indie pop songs, they may make too obvious their attempts to tug at your heartstrings, but they are always filled with good actors. And not just good actors, but the right actors for their particular parts. Everyone in his new film, Up in the Air, from stars George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick, to supporting players like Juno veterans Jason Bateman and J.K. Simmons, to the real victims of the current recession who play those downsized by Clooney’s firer-for-hire, are irreplaceable. That is a somewhat ironic fact given that Up in the Air is set in a world of economic hardship in which everyone is replaceable, even those whose job it is to do the replacing.
Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man who travels the country firing people for a living. Essentially, when your company doesn’t have the balls to can you, they hire Bingham to come and do it. As part of his job, Bingham spends something like 320 days a year on the road. To most people, this sounds like a nightmare existence. To Bingham it is heaven. Where some of us might feel pangs of guilt during a life spent perpetually shitcanning every person we meet, Bingham revels in the freedom his vocation affords him. He’s wracked up millions of frequent flyer miles and hotel points and avoided the sort of long-term human contact that he believes weighs people down and keeps them from happiness. One wonders whether his beliefs were what led him to the “career transition counseling” industry or if they’re the defense mechanism he erected to help him get through his day. One also wonders whether Bingham himself knows for sure.
In an economy as bad as ours, no job is safe, not even Bingham’s. A young newcomer to his company, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has devised a system to allow their employees to fire people over the Internet through a video chat program. Now Bingham’s beloved lifestyle is in jeopardy, along with his goal of becoming just the seventh person in history to reach 10,000,000 frequent flyer miles (more people, Bingham boasts, have set foot on the moon). At the same time, Bingham’s theories about human relationships are also thrown into question when he finds a saucy fellow business traveler (Vera Farmiga) whose values mirror his own.
I don’t know when Reitman began adapting Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel for the screen, but he is either a scarily astute economic forecaster or a lucky son of a bitch, because coming, as it does, in the midst of a recession, Up in the Air radiates an aura of timeliness that is rare for any product of Hollywood, where it routinely takes two or three years to produce a movie from conception to release. Reitman got his start on the festival circuit, first with short films and then with his independent projects Thank You For Smoking and the popular Juno. Despite his ascension to the world larger budgets and bigger stars, he’s managed to make this, his most mainstream-friendly film, his most relevant, most issue-heavy work to date.
He can get away with some of the more heavy-handed moments because of Clooney’s soothing presence. Though it’s not a showy, emotional role, Bingham isn’t an easy one either. This is a man who has to convince people both onscreen and off that the loss of a job is actually a good thing, and Clooney is so goddamn charming, he pulls it off. Some belittle his range as an actor, even though he’s made projects as varied as O Brother Where Art Thou and The Good German, maybe because he is so good at playing characters who are in effortless control of themselves that people assume that what he does is effortless. But in a time with fewer and fewer movie stars, he’s always interesting onscreen, even in uninteresting movies. He was the best part of a mediocre movie earlier this fall called The Men Who Stare at Goats, and now he is the best part of this very good movie. Plus his chemistry with Vera Farmiga is downright saucy.
Up in the Air is sentimental, but that doesn’t mean it’s simplistic. In fact, the movie plays at some interesting contradictions. It is a genuinely funny movie about genuinely depressing times. It empathizes with the people who get fired, but it humanizes the people who do the firing as well. Bingham hates connections (the human kind, not the flying kind) but even he recognizes and rejects the dehumanization that will come with Keener’s technological innovations. The movie observes the shallowness of his lifestyle, but not before it fetishizes it too. Bingham’s world may not be real, but that doesn’t mean it’s not appealing, with its well-designed rooms with perfectly made beds and perfectly poured drinks. Reitman understands both the comforts and the hollowness of corporate travel, and he’s smart enough to show us both. And he’s not too bad at picking actors for his movies either.
Rumpus original art by Ian Huebert.