Writer director Jason Reitman began adapting Walter Kirn’s novel Up in the Air in 2002 and intended for it to be his first feature film. He ended up setting it aside in favor of Thank You for Smoking and Juno, but the delay turned out to be something of a happy accident. As the movie centers around a man whose job it is to go from company to company and tell employees of those companies that they have been laid off, the movie is much more relevant in 2009 than it would have been in 2002.
That man, Ryan Bingham, deals with the inherent stress of that job because it allows him to keep on the move. Ryan explains his philosophy of “moving is living” to crowds as a motivational speaker and he lives it. Ryan’s home is not the undecorated, one-bedroom apartment he rents in Omaha, but rather the first class cabin of his next flight. His goal is to collect a one million frequent-flyer miles. Not because he has a destination in mind, but just so he can be part of an exclusive club to ever reach that number.
His lifestyle is threatened when a hotshot young college graduate named Natalie invades his company and introduces the idea of saving the money on travel by firing people over the internet. Not wanting to be grounded, Ryan attempts to prove what a disastrous idea this would be by taking Natalie out on the road with him.
Having recently been laid off myself, the scenes involving persons being told that the job they rely on for their livelihood is being eliminated really resonated with me. Upon reviewing some of the film’s background on IMDB.com, I found it interesting that with the exception of some famous actors such as J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis, most of the people seen fired in the film were actual persons who had just lost their jobs. The filmmakers approached these people posing as a documentary crew and told them to treat the camera as if it were the person who laid them off and either respond as they did, or take the opportunity to say what they really wanted to say. The authenticity does add to the film’s topicality.
Now, as depressing a premise as the plot may sound, the film is actually quite funny. In fact, this movie may have the single funniest line of any movie I’ve seen this year. Not only is the line funny, however, but referring to Natalie’s fire-over-the-internet plan, it is also relevant to the film thematically. This is something that Jason Reitman has demonstrated a great talent for in his young career. Both Thank You for Smoking and Juno were able to add humor to serious topics, without lessening the underlying message of the movie. Up in the Air is no exception.
Much like the title role in Michael Clayton, the role of Ryan Bingham seems as if it were tailor-made for George Clooney. The actor possesses both the suavity of a jet set business man who could seduce a stranger in a hotel bar and the gravitas to handle the character’s more challenging emotional cues, like those experienced with his family he has been keeping at a distance for years. According to the early buzz, Clooney is a favorite for this year’s best actor Oscar and what impresses me is that while most actors receive the Academy’s attention for playing real people, handicapped persons, or for over-the-top performances capable of burning a hole in the screen, Clooney gets the attention basically for playing George Clooney. That’s a tribute to the subtlety of his work.
Not to be overlooked, however, is Anna Kendrick, who plays Natalie. She arrives on screen as the ambitious college graduate out to prove her worth and ends up getting a bitter taste of what her difficult job really entails. I think the days of her playing fifth fiddle in The Twilight Saga are well behind her.
Up in the Air sucks us in with its comedy, keeps us there with its characters and sticks with us beyond the theater with its relevance. It is another fine achievement for Reitman, who is proving to be one of Hollywood’s brightest young directors.
Right Movie, Right Time