I wondered how a film where the main character’s job is to fire employees for firms that are looking to downsize is getting so much attention in this economic climate. My guess is the filmmakers frequently debated how they would position and portray those difficult “letting workers go” scenes and instead turn the focus on the core of the story. They succeeded. Although a significant amount of time is devoted to them, Up in the Air is centered on Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) and his search for a life he doesn’t even know he’s looking for.
Mr. Bingham is apparently one of the best in his field. He travels over 300 days a year, touching down in cities big and small to deliver bad news to everyone he meets. He’s cool, calculated and right to the point. Partly because he has to be for legal reasons, but also because even for Ryan, this is tough work. Yes it’s a job, but one senses Ryan has an undercurrent of sincere empathy beneath that professional facade.
All is right in Ryan’s little world. He loves the special treatment elite status affords him by airlines and hotels across the country. Every transaction is viewed as an opportunity to accumulate airline miles that brings him closer to his goal of 10 million. He has this traveling thing nailed. Nothing is packed unless it’s needed, and he knows exactly what he needs. Every move is choreographed with a specific purpose, eliminating every ounce of waste and inefficiency from his professional and personal life. So much so that he has carved out a niche for himself on the speaking circuit entitled What’s in Your Backpack.
Director Jason Reitman tries to squeeze Mr. Clooney’s chiseled good looks into almost every frame of the film. It’s a good strategy, but he goes one better. Through short vignettes inside the film, Mr. Reitman uncovers the inner workings of Ryan’s one track mind with fast cuts of Ryan packing, getting through TSA security and checking into jetliners and hotels. A wonderful device that advances the story and foreshadows the films final scenes.
One night while unwinding in the hotel bar, Ryan spots a very beautiful woman, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), sitting in a tall chair looking bored. He strikes up a conversation, about reward programs of course, and soon they are tossing down their loyalty cards in show off style. One thing leads to another and soon they find themselves in the same hotel room. Arrangements are made to meet again.
Ryan’s boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), calls him back to the home office in Omaha to unveil something revolutionary. A whipper-snapper employee fresh from Cornel, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), has convinced Craig that all this travel expense is completely unnecessary. Instead the firm should use technology to fire people. It’s dead simple. Put a computer monitor in a client’s conference room and fire the people via video conference. Job accomplished without anyone ever setting foot outside Nebraska.
Ryan is threatened by this as it will pull him off the road and crush his lifestyle. But it’s not just the prospect of losing miles opportunities that bothers him. He feels that being face to face is crucial to helping people who have just heard devastating news transition to a new opportunity. He demonstrates his point effectively by making Natalie fire him as if she was online. The message gets across to Craig and Ryan is asked to show Natalie the ropes on the road so she can better understand the process. He refuses at first, but eventually accepts his new sidekick and off they go.
I was prepared for this to go all “buddy picture” on me, but the filmmakers were able to rise above that with thoughtful dialogue and removing the “I’m going to sabotage this” temptation. With Natalie as an observer, Ryan demonstrates how it’s done. During one session a gentleman flashes photos of kids and asks what he should do now. Ryan has done his homework by reading through the man’s resume in advance. He points him back to what was once his career love, completely changing the mood of the conversation from doom to potential.
Pic is shot through a realistic lens with almost no special effects. They also use real airlines and hotel properties which succeeds in bringing the audience closer to the story. There are an abundance of shots of clouds, views of the ground from 32,000 feet and wide array of corporate settings. Thanks to great editing the film has crisp pacing and holds dramatic interest. All the performances are excellent, especially Mr. Clooney, who showcases his timing and wit. Ms. Farmiga is seductive in her portrayal of the male version of Ryan Bingham. Supporting actors turn solid work, rounding out the story. I love these kind of pure films.
Natalie and Ryan have very different life philosophies and their banter serves to expose both the advantages and disadvantages of the choice each has made. They nudge one aother back from the guardrail and more toward the center of their beliefs, setting up a finale that delivers an emotional jolt.
Highly recommended. The official Up in the Air web site can be found here. Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.