Status: In limited release (opened 12/4/09); opens wide 12/25/09
Directed By: Jason Reitman
Written By: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
Cinematographer: Eric Steelberg
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman
Fewer men have accumulated 10 million American Airlines frequent-flyer miles than have walked on the moon. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) wants to become one of that elite group. His profession dictates that he travel almost constantly. He lives out of a carry-on-sized suitcase, staying in a different hotel room every night. He has a side gig doing speaking engagements, where he extols the virtues of a life lived in isolation, free of the metaphorical baggage of possessions and relationships that so many of us carry. He practices what he preaches. To reach the 10-million mile mark requires flying a shade under 350,000 miles per year for 30 years, and he’s dead set on achieving that. When his boss (Jason Bateman) requires him to return to his company’s office in Omaha, where he keeps a studio apartment that’s even less inviting than the hotel rooms he typically stays in, it puts a cramp in his schedule. Even having a tryst with a fellow travel junky, the beautiful Alex (Vera Farmiga), doesn’t dissuade him: instead of altering their travel plans, they compare schedules and look forward to the next time they’ll happen to be in the same city.
Up in the Air is a double entendre of a title for Jason Reitman’s new film: literally, it’s about a guy who flies a lot, but figuratively, Ryan Bingham’s place in the world—and his outlook of it—is undecided, particularly in terms of what he’s looking for in a relationship. (The film’s poster refers to “a man ready to make a connection.”) His company hires a young hotshot, a recent college graduate named Natalie (Anna Kendrick), with some new ideas about how they should run things. To prove that she’s wrong, Ryan takes Natalie on the road with him, to demonstrate for her the disconnect between her theories and the real world. Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner’s script is careful to avoid the cliches of the mentor/mentee relationship, although as is always the case in situations such as these, it is inevitable that they both end up learning a bit from each other over the course of their journey. What it’s really about, though, is what they learn about themselves.
I’m being intentionally vague about the details of the story here, because I really think that Up in the Air is the kind of film that you should go into cold and just let it unfold in front of you without knowing where it’s headed. (Even mentioning the 10 million-mile number might be considered a bit of a “spoiler,” albeit not a very big one.) What I can tell you is that it’s an engaging story, one that is extremely well-told, and a film that’s very well-made. It’s shot non-obtrusively by Eric Steelberg, allowing the character performances—which are without a doubt the main draw—to be showcased, but there are a few nice artistic touches thrown in as well (I particularly liked a recurring motif of introductory aerial shots of the various cities Ryan travels to). The editing, too, by Dana Glauberman, is a terrific balance of restraint and the occasional stylistic indulgence—montages of the people Ryan encounters in his travels, and rapid-fire sequences showing how he packs. It all fits an overarching tone of methodical adherence to routine, which gets disrupted when Ryan begins to change his mind about the way he lives his life.
George Clooney is as good as always, embodying his always-perfect balance of winking confidence, cockiness, subtle humor, and emotional vulnerability. He’s matched step-for-step by Vera Farmiga, and watching the two play off of each other is a true cinematic pleasure. There’s a climactic scene near the end where the two actors’ facial expressions tell an entire story all by themselves. (As an aside, I can’t decide whether the makeup and costuming in The Departed did a great job of making Farmiga look younger than she is, or if those of Up in the Air did an equally good job of making her look older, or both, but I think I’m tending to believe that she’s just such a good actress that it’s due to her skill more than anything. My perception of the age of her characters in the two films is that there’s at least a decade between them, and I find that really impressive.)
The supporting cast is also quite good. Most of them are tasked with conveying some serious emotions on screen, and by and large they do so in a way that feels real without getting too cheesy or forced. Jason Reitman, I think, is one of those directors who a lot of people want to work with, and as a result there are actors in Up in the Air‘s smaller supporting roles who are used to a lot more screen time (J.K. Simmons, Zach Galifianakis), but they pour themselves into their roles here just as well as they would otherwise. Most impressive, though—and most surprising—is Danny McBride, who I normally view as an annoying buffoon whenever he shows up in a film, but here Reitman reins him in, and he gives a whole-hearted performance that is central to making the movie’s emotional weight work.
Up in the Air is one of those films that has something for everybody. It’s equal parts funny, witty, insightful, heart-wrenching, and touching. Its themes are both very timely—the poor economy, the urge to downsize, the endless march of technology at the expense of traditional “people” jobs—and simultaneously timeless—do we need close relationships with other humans in order to flourish in our own lives? What does it mean to spend time with somebody, or to be intimate with them, if you believe that nothing will ever come of it? Its exploration of these themes is handled maturely, and yet it isn’t so self-serious that it becomes bogged down by them, making for a thoroughly entertaining film that has a few points to make along the way, and does so effectively.