(by Dustin Putman
"Up in the Air" centers around a less than admirable profession—career corporate downsizing—and manages a close-to-impossible task: it listens, and shows deep compassion, for each one of its characters, embracing their positive qualities and their flaws. Writer-director Jason Reitman, along with co-writer Sheldon Turner (2006's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning"), have created a slice-of-life that is humane, caring, and only overtly sentimental when the honesty of a situation calls for it. As comes with the territory of such a job, the film can also be painful and ruthless, pulling no punches as it considers the immense emotional strain placed on both the victims being given the boot and those that are faced with breaking the news to them. Article continues below
Omaha may be where Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) keeps an apartment, albeit one as painfully white, undecorated and impersonal as could possibly be imagined, but it is in the air and on the road where he feels most at home. When a place of employment wants to fire someone, but they don't have the cajones to do it, Ryan is called upon to travel wherever need be and do it for them. As tough and emotionally draining as it can be, he's good at it, lending a sympathetic ear to his laid-off clients as they freshly deal with the news and struggle to come to terms with losing a job they have often dedicated many years of their lives to.
Terminally single and uninterested in marriage or kids, Ryan nonetheless is smitten by a woman he meets at an airport lounge. Her name is Alex (Vera Farmiga) and the two of them quickly realize they are the opposite-sex equivalent of each other—on the road a lot and bringing precious little baggage into the casual hookups they begin to have whenever they cross paths. For all of Ryan's protests about not wanting someone to share his future with, he regretfully looks at the just-short-of-estranged relationship he has with his closest living relatives, sisters Julie (Melanie Lynskey) and Kara (Amy Morton)—not to mention the former's impending marriage to Jim (Danny McBride)—and can't help but confront the things perilously missing in his life. To make matters even worse, enter 23-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears new efficiency expert Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), hastily brought into the fold by boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) based upon a cockamamie global-becomes-local idea of firing people via internet teleconference. It's impersonal, even cruel. Craig sees it as a way of eliminating travel expenses for the company. Ryan sees it as a direct affront against his very lifestyle and all that he has worked toward. Before the plan goes into effect, Natalie is instructed to hit the airways with Ryan to see exactly what the job entails.
Based on the novel by Walter Kirn, "Up in the Air" stands as another impressive notch on the belt of Jason Reitman. He has only directed three feature films—2006's "Thank You for Smoking," 2007's "Juno," and now this—but there isn't a weak link among them. Reitman has a gift for following characters who feel authentic rather than like caricatures, capturing them as they really are and finding the soul beneath their complications. Ryan Bingham lives out of his suitcase, fires strangers for a living, and shows no immediate interest in settling down. His life's greatest goal is to earn ten million frequent flyer miles, which may become a reality sooner rather than later. When trying to work out their conflicting schedules so they can meet again, Ryan and Alex are so comfortable in their setting that they speak in airport initials. Nevertheless, Ryan is far from heartless and is capable of empathy—a quality that serves him well at his job. In trying to help out his sister with a project she is working on for her wedding, Ryan carries around a cardboard cutout of Julie and Jim and diligently photographs them as if they were visiting every city he travels to.
When Natalie Keener walks into his life very suddenly, already practically the boss' pet and proposing teleconferencing as the future of global corporate downsizing, Ryan is understandably guarded, protective of retaining the work model he has always known. His reaction isn't solely a selfish one, either; he is correct in his worries that teleconferencing will take away the all-important face-to-face contact imperative in fulfilling their duties while showing interest in their just-fired clients' feelings and needs. Natalie, a recent college graduate new to the work force, has recently relocated from San Francisco to Omaha to follow a boyfriend she may not have a future with, and this is where she has ended up. A go-getter who does not yet realize how emotionally exhausting it is to look someone in the eye and take their livelihood away from them, Natalie gets a first-hand course from Ryan that makes her think twice about not only the efficiency ideas she came to the job with, but about the job in general. It's not what she had hoped she'd be doing when she was in college, and Ryan sees that as her orderly, self-confident outer layers are unpeeled to reveal the real, vulnerable, and altogether more beautiful person beneath. That these two characters never once are in any danger of romantic sparks—"I don't think of him in that way, he's old," is how Natalie describes Ryan while she's on her phone—only strengthens the platonic friendship and respect they grow for each other.
George Clooney (2009's "The Men Who Stare at Goats") often plays large roles—not just in size, but in stature. Whether portraying a career thief, a hotshot attorney, or an offbeat military guy, the actor fits like a glove, but is capable of more diversity. His Ryan Bingham is in charge, but the character is more normal and down-to-earth—an average working-class man—and that's one reason why Clooney makes such a splash this time. He's more identifiable, more open, more fallible. As Alex, Vera Farmiga (2009's "Orphan") is a fitting match, the sort of quick-witted, smart gal one could see Ryan falling for. She challenges him without judging him, and since they are in the same travel-centric circumstances professionally, one imagines they could have a sporting chance of making it work. For that matter, it could also spell their undoing. As strong as Clooney and Farmiga are, they are no match for the scene-stealing Anna Kendrick (2008's "Twilight"). Luminous every second she's onscreen and greatly missed the rest of the time, Kendrick's poignant, adorable, complex work as Natalie is certain to be her breakthrough to the big time. It is one of those key performances easily remembered and fondly looked upon at the end of the year.
With "Up in the Air," writer-director Jason Reitman trusts his material and the talents of his performers. The results are both funny and sad, life-affirming and, as with life, not always fair. The film doesn't need to try too hard to achieve these goals and, indeed, does achieve them for this very reason. Cinematography by Eric Steelberg (2009's "Bandslam") is top-notch and eclectic across the country, picturesque in the aerial work depicting the overhead patterns and shapes that make up each individual city. Also of particular note: the original song "Help Yourself" by Sad Brad Smith, masterfully incorporated into the film. The final scene is a curious one, up for debate by those who see it. It can be read two different ways, one that signals definite growth and a shapely arc for Ryan, and one that is more pessimistic but no less believable. The ending is satisfying enough, but may be too ambiguous for its own good. We, as the viewer, have grown to love the people we have been watching, and so Ryan's future is just one of many that ranks with a newfound importance. Fictional characters though they are, there is such an aching intimacy and resounding spontaneity to them that they seem real. It is bittersweet to have to say good-bye.