‘Up in the Air’: The year’s best

November 30, 2009

I’ve been touting “Up in the Air” as the year’s best film since I saw it in Toronto in September – and I still haven’t seen anything that has changed my mind.


With this deft, witty, smart and soulful film, writer-director Jason Reitman establishes himself as one of the most sure-handed purveyors of a certain kind of comedy, a tradition that marks him as a modern purveyor of the same cinematic tradition as Frank Capra and Preston Sturges.


“Up in the Air” is Reitman’s third feature (following 2005’s “Thank You for Smoking” and 2007’s “Juno”) and his most fully realized to date. His reworking of Walter Kirn’s very different novel captures the sensibility that Kirn plugged into – the subculture of the constant traveler, in pursuit of frequent-flyer miles, upgrades, perks that accrue to the loyal and regular customer.


Given the lead time on putting together a studio movie in Hollywood – and putting one together around George Clooney’s busy schedule – it is mere chance that this film arrives in the wake of a massive economic downturn that still has people shivering under very thin 401Ks – if they have jobs at all. But Reitman has written the perfect character for these times: a courtly and affable grim reaper named Ryan Bingham, embodied by the immaculate Clooney in what could easily be an Oscar-winning performance.


Bingham works for a consulting group in Omaha, which hires itself to companies that need to lay off groups of employees in one time-managed swoop. So Ryan Bingham becomes the face of downsizing, the one who explains the situation, thanks them for their work and wishes them well on their future endeavors. And no one at the company that’s actually taking a reduction in force has to actually get his or her hands dirty.


It’s a brutal process, yet Ryan has it down to an art. He is the voice of reason, the cool fresh-pair-of-eyes who can help you look at the very uncertain future with, perhaps, a bit more optimism. He has learned to give the process the kind of dignity it deserves, to try to keep emotions in check or at least moving in a less negative direction.


He seems to spend weeks on the road at a time, returning home to main office and a bare-bones apartment to change up his stuff. He is really most at home in the airport, on the airplane, in the Admiral’s Lounge, at a hotel, in a rented car – on the road, in other words.


He slips away from his executioner’s life on occasion to deliver motivational speeches, which are titled, “What’s in your backpack?” The intention is to get people to throw away a lot of the baggage they carry around that’s slowing them down in their life and career – but it might as well be a primer about what’s important to Ryan Bingham, which is to be left alone and to travel without distraction or interruption.


His goal is to join the elite ten-million-miles club, which he is rapidly approaching. But his whole way of life is threatened when his boss (Jason Bateman) brings in a young consultant bearing the next wave: video-conferenced firing sessions, removing the need for people like Ryan to fly anywhere.


Her name is Natalie (Anna Kendrick) and she’s convinced that she’s the wave of the future. But Ryan objects to his smooth boss Craig (Jason Bateman), saying that eliminating the face-to-face element is, in essence, cutting their own throat – that his in-person approach is what keeps the job relevant, necessary and bearable.


So he takes Natalie with him on one of his purge tours of America, letting her sit in on his sessions, then letting her try it on her own – and then watching as she takes over and handles one of the video-conferenced lay-offs as well.


The best part of Reitman’s film is its consistent sense of surprise: This frequently feels like a Hollywood product, with precharted plot paths that seem obvious in their direction. And yet every time you think you know where the movie is taking you, it detours into something else, leading you unsuspecting to a finale that is both emotionally crushing and moving.


Reitman’s point is that there is value in the connections we so casually shed in order to maintain our cruising altitude.  As he examines his life from a slightly altered angle, Ryan discovers that his protective coating of self-imposed solitude may have trapped him inside, rather than protecting him from those outside. That’s particularly true when he shows up unexpectedly for the wedding of a younger sister in Wisconsin – and finds that the family he long ago shed still means something to him.


Clooney is perfect in this role: disciplined, under control, funny, smooth and seemingly invulnerable. But this is a movie about a man surprised to discover that he is, in fact, vulnerable to all the things he’s avoided for most of his professional life. And Clooney touches the viewer’s heart every time that vulnerability peeks through, every time his shield is pierced.


He’s got the perfect foil in Anna Kendrick as the self-assured Natalie, whose confidence and youth are like blinders that Ryan gradually removes. And Clooney finds the ideal erotic playmate in Vera Farmiga, as a fellow traveler who rubs up against Ryan and becomes a sometime companion when their schedules align. Farmiga is at once seductive and similarly shielded from her feelings. Or perhaps compartmentalized is more accurate, a trait that Ryan can’t quite imagine her having until it’s too late.


Reitman’s film manages to make important comments about the nature of and need for meaningful work in our lives, without being preachy or obvious about it. The firing scenes are alternately wrenching and funny – but humorous in a painful way, for what they say about what so many people are facing in the aftermath of the Bush debacle.


Ultimately, however, “Up in the Air” works because it is too smart to pound its points home. While it has a lot to say, it’s not about to give you a list of bullet points. Instead, it takes you for an engulfing and entertaining journey – and leaves it to you to realize that there was a lot more going on here than its seemingly simple tale of one man’s pursuit of frequent-flyer miles.


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