Up in the Air
The same sanitized key card existence disparaged by Edward Norton's gravelly narrator in “Fight Club” is worshiped by George Clooney's gentlemanly protagonist Ryan Bingham, in Jason Reitman's new film “Up in the Air.” Employed by a "career transition" corporate firm (essentially, he is hired to fire people), Ryan travels for all but 40 days of the year and aspires to attain 10 million frequent flyer miles. Not for any specific trip, but to save for the sake of saving. As he proudly tells his young protegee Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), only six people in the world have achieved this goal.
As he did in “Thank You for Smoking,” writer and director Jason Reitman skillfully presents a fast-talking charmer and slowly but surely picks him apart. (There's even a fun cameo by everyone's favorite Marlboro Man.) Ryan may relish his free as a bird lifestyle, but it comes with a price, or several. Sure, his services are highly in demand -- but the news he delivers is devastating to each and every recipient. And he enjoys the plush perks that come with gold rental car status and concierge keys, but his Omaha apartment is blank and bleak, he has no discernible friends, and his relationships with his sisters (Melanie Lynskey and Amy Morton) are strained at best. Even his saucy female counterpart and occasional lover (Vera Farmiga) deliberately remains elusive and may not be what she seems.
At times, Reitman relies a little too heavily on indie cliches (soft guitar music, long introspective shots that scream "where is my home?"). The quick cuts of Ryan packing for yet another trip are a bit excessive. Also, the film emphasizes a necessity for marriage and children, life choices that aren't necessarily appropriate for everyone.
What “Up in the Air” captures best, however, is an all too real sense of uncertainty and outright pain, in an era where all one has worked for can be eviscerated with a simple "have a seat." Reitman effectively employs the same technique used by Steven Soderbergh in “The Informant!”-- employing actors primarily known for their comic skills in more brittle and brutal roles. Danny McBride, Zach Galifianakis, and the forever-brilliant J.K. Simmons turn in brief but memorable performances, all sad and poignant in their own way. As always, George Clooney is a pleasure to watch. No matter what you think of celebrity culture, you simply can’t hate the man: he conveys an elegance and grace all too absent in today’s man-children actors.
The film’s females also shine: it’s wonderful to see Chicago theatre actress Amy Morton onscreen, and after almost fifteen years of small film and TV roles, “Heavenly Creatures”’ Lynskey is finally, and rightfully, coming into her own. Hopefully this film will launch Farmiga's career into the mainstream, and it's nice to see Kendrick in something more substantial than “Twilight.” Fans of the latter should check out her darkly hilarious turn in the 2003 tribute to musical theatre geeks, “Camp.”
“Up in the Air,” while not a perfect film, contains many genuine moments stressing the importance of friendship and love in an insecure era, which will surely resonate with many viewers. An interesting fact, if IMDb is to be believed: Reitman wanted to make this film several years ago but was waylaid for various reasons. With the economy in the state it is, “Up in the Air” may just be in the right place at the right time.