Up In The Air is easily one of the best movies released this year, even if there’s not that much year left to spawn new contenders. For a while now, when it comes to serious adult-oriented dramas, the cinema has come up lacking. It’s been a banner year at the movies with Inglorious Basterds, Up and District 9 showing us that studio-genre films can still surprise you and indies like (500) Days Of Summer, Hurt Locker or The Brothers Bloom offering up some left-of-center entertainment. Up In The Air stands alone outside of this year’s Oscar Race because it never seems like it’s gunning for a statuette. Director Jason Reitman and stars Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick and George Clooney have offered up something special, a story I’ll revisit from time-to-time as the years march on.
George Clooney slides into Ryan Bingham effortlessly. Bingham’s job is to fly around the United States and fire people when the managers and executives of any given company don’t want to do the job themselves. The economy being what it’s been this year-of-our-Lord, 2009, business is looking good for Bingham. He’s flying all over, racking up frequent flyer miles, trying desperately to get to a big, round number: 10,000,000 miles. Only 7 people in the world have ever reached that number. You get your name on the side of a plane and a personalized card. Ryan Bingham loves cards. He has them to get in and out of hotel rooms, check in and out of red carpet clubs, I’m fairly sure there isn’t an old-fashioned key-access door in this whole movie.
We pick up with Bingham as he’s giving a motivational speech, his side job where he preaches his “backpack” analogy, telling people in the audience that they must keep moving if they are to reach success. Part of this constant personal motion involves leaving behind personal relationships, something Ryan is very good at.
Enter Vera Farmiga’s Alex who has a similar obsession to Ryan, an obsession with status and the cards representing that status. Alex and Ryan get along well because they are both just into the sex. They plan layovers and reschedule flights to end up in the same city for a couple of hours and neither seems to be all that concerned with the other when they are apart. At least not initially.
Nothing really challenges Ryan’s worldview until Bingham’s boss (played by Jason Bateman) pairs him with Anna Kendrick’s Natalie. A young, 20-something go-getter who has proposed that Ryan’s firing business go online to web video so they won’t have to send agents on month-long air trips around the US. Needless to say, Bingham’s not for this idea and his attempt to stop it puts him in the uncomfortable position of teaching Natalie the ropes in the field even when the best case scenario is that she will make Ryan obsolete.
Up in the Air is a three character film, at the most. Clooney gives another great performance as Ryan Bingham, making him lovable in an Ocean’s 11 kind of way even though the man’s attempts at changing himself for the better aren’t always motivated by the right things.
Clooney aside, this movie belongs to the two supporting actresses who will be duking it out amongst themselves for noms in a few weeks. Anna Kendrick will be making a name for herself with this performance, coming out from the shadow of her Twilight casting. Vera Farmiga might have my favorite female character committed to film thus far this year, and I spent most of the movie getting the interpretation of her completely wrong.
Outside of three fine performances holding Up In The Air together, Jason Reitman might have stumbled across the first movie that provides an accurate cultural snapshot of the recession. I don’t think the filmmaker was aware that he was doing it, at least interviews I have read ad conducted with him don’t mention it, but the isolation that each of these three characters feel and how they deal with it rings true to me. Granted, Bingham and his girls are isolated from the rest of the world by a busy work schedule and the organized chaos of air flight, but they are also socially isolated when they are on the ground, using electronic devices to communicate. Ryan texts Alex, Natalie calls her boyfriend on her cell, people are fired via webcam, technology is in this story providing false connections, but this theme isn’t highlighted. It’s just there.
That combined with the particulars of national airports that we’ve all been inside and seen designed, stocked, crowded, then inconvenienced by post 9-11 security makes a world that is relatable to most people living in the modern condition during this economic downturn. You never get the feeling that there are a lot of functional groups of people in this movie, we see shining moments of hope at the wedding of a Bingham sister and large groups of people at self-help seminars, but everyone in this film starts their screen time isolated, confused and alone.
And – surprisingly – some end the film that way.
This is Jason Reitman’s third film after Thank You For Smoking and Juno, and while I can’t say Up In The Air is the best film I saw all year, I can say that Jason Reitman has made three solidly “good” movies. The man isn’t the second coming, but he makes complete films that seem like a unified presentation from how it’s shot and scored to how it’s written and performed.
I don’t know when Up In The Air is released near you (perhaps check the official site?), but I highly recommend you see it. I know it will have a place in my home video library in the future, in case I ever want to remember how confusing it felt to be living at the tail end of the first decade of the 21st Century.