For most of us, air travel largely invokes the agony of endlessly long lines — complete with pushing and crowding, and specifically timed feedings. For Ryan Bingham — the corporate protagonist played by George Clooney in Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air — they’re all quite welcoming. The sky is his home. His life is devoted to visiting companies and laying off the workforce on behalf of their cowardly bosses. He describes himself as a Termination Facilitator. He takes the trust that people have in their jobs…and pulls the rug right out from under them. In hard times especially, his business is great.
Ryan has a sterile, empty apartment in Omaha that he barely lives in. For over 200 days a year, he’s in and out of airports. Above all else, Ryan is intent on reaching an astounding ten million frequent flyer miles. As his boss (Jason Bateman) puts it, Ryan is basically a mobile downsizer or a “career transition counselor” — thriving in the chaos of recession. He’s able to look you in the eye, shake your hand, and make you believe being fired represents a new opportunity as opposed to a tragedy. Ryan has his own unique system for life: He simply avoids it. This film isn’t a comedy, nor is it a tragedy. It’s a story about a man who does a job. Bingham loves the work he does. He doesn’t want a home, let alone a family. In between jobs, he gives self-help lectures on how to keep your life down to what you can fit in one backpack. With that said, one can measure his emotional baggage in ounces.
The change starts when two women enter Ryan’s life in very different ways. Alex (played by the incredible Vera Farmiga) is an executive who shares the same travel routine as him. She’s confident and sexy, and is his perfect opposite. Their first encounter at a hotel bar turns into a duel of platinum rewards cards. She proves to be a female version of himself. “Just think of me as you, but with a vagina.” Farmiga, who has such an authenticity to her acting, laps up to Alex’s obscurity.
While Clooney has all the lines, Farmiga has a range of subtle smiles and glances. These suggest a world of emotion held always at arm’s length. It’s not so much destiny as it is routine scheduling that drives the duo together. And the love — the real intense stuff — would just get in the way. The next woman bouncing into the picture is Natalie (Anna Kendrick). She immediately dismisses Ryan’s thought process and way of living. She is a bright 23-year-old Cornell graduate hired by Ryan’s boss to figure out a system on laying off workers more efficiently. This process will undoubtedly utilize a computer. Seeing this as a threat to his isolated life on the road, Ryan decides to takes her with him to prove her wrong. Kendrick is a revelation in this film. She can hold her own against the seasoned Clooney. Watching her swift, yet hilarious breakdown after losing her fiancé (who she moved to Omaha for) is both moving and heartbreaking. With Ryan’s allergic reaction to consoling her, their relationship has the appeal of classic-era comedy.
Reitman (Juno, Thank you for Smoking) likes the bounce of opposites in characters. He also has the ability to shoot with a quiet power. There are plenty of aerial shots gliding through the beautiful terrain of Midwestern cities. These snowy, strange, recession-hit areas are where Ryan does his best work. The more we witness the sad dismissal of workers and their heart-wrenching pleas, we begin to realize that we’ve gotten Ryan pegged all wrong. That’s the brilliance of Reitman and his script.
As he gently exposes the nature of his trade to Natalie, his understanding of pain and anguish reveals him to be the most compassionate character in the film. Ryan is not just the executioner, but the therapist alongside it. He’s in control — not emotionless to what he’s witnessing. Much like Reitman’s other films, he aches for human connection. As Ryan continues to soften, he breaks his routine and invites Alex to his estranged sister’s wedding. When the groom (Danny McBride) becomes reluctant to go through with the wedding, it’s Ryan who sells him on marriage with the idea that “everyone needs a copilot.” Without cracking his own façade, Clooney is able to portray a beautiful mix of loneliness and aspiration. His performance is a gift to the audience and to this film.
Reitman, son of funnyman Ivan Reitman, has classic Hollywood storytelling in his blood. Up in the Air is an unapologetically, edgy mainstream film that will be continue to be one of Reitman’s finest to date.
Image Source: Daily Mail