George Clooney is approaching his destination
by Jason Blair
UP IN THE AIR: Directed by Jason Reitman. Written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn. Cinematography, Eric Steelberg. Music, Rolfe Kent. Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Danny McBride, J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis. Paramount Pictures, 2009. R. 109 minutes.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a man without attachments. Technically, he maintains a residence in Omaha, but his apartment better resembles a bleached hotel suite, a fitting domicile for a man who spends 300 days on the road each year. Ryan is a corporate downsizer: When companies lay off employees, they fly Ryan in to deliver the bad news. In essence, Ryan is a salesman, one whose talent is saying “you’re fired” in such a way that the recently sacked actually expect better days ahead. As you might imagine, Ryan maintains few personal relationships, which to him are nothing more than “secrets and compromises.” To him, being among people is walking from one airport terminal to the next. As Up in the Air opens, we learn that while the firing business is good, Ryan in particular thrives on delivering a difficult message with dignity. “To know me,” Ryan purrs in a voiceover, “is to fly with me.” Except nobody can claim to know him.
We never learn whether Ryan’s detachment is the result of his work or his basic nature. We simply understand, watching him fire a potential wingnut (Zach Galifianakis), that Ryan is the right man for the right job at the right moment. (Ryan’s boss, referring to the global recession, says firmly, “This is our moment.”) Up in the Air, to the credit of writer/director Jason Reitman, isn’t concerned with how Ryan came to be so successful, let alone so successfully insulated from the world. Instead, the film is about whether — and if so, how — a person as comfortably cocooned as Ryan might emerge from his isolation to take part in the lives of others. To that end, Ryan is tested by two women, one of which seems like an opportunity and the other a potential threat. The opportunity is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent flyer who, like Ryan, believes in the status that frequent flyer points confer. The threat is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young but naïve efficiency expert who convinces Ryan’s boss (Jason Bateman) to begin firing people via videoconference. Ryan finds himself defending the dignity of his dirty work to Natalie, who joins him on the road to test her assumptions, even as the relative importance of that work begins to shift as he falls for Alex.
Director Reitman, who along with Sheldon Turner wrote Up in the Air based loosely on the Walter Kirn novel, is an assured creator of dramatic comedies, having directed the toothy satire Thank You for Smoking and the wonderfully offbeat Juno. Up in the Air surpasses both of those films, in part because the screenplay, which has been referred to as overly tidy, is in fact almost perfectly executed. Even The Graduate could be called “tidy” in that it hits the right emotional notes at precisely the right moments. The goal of a film like Up in the Air is to get Ryan to a place of decision, a pivot point if you will, in such a way that, should Ryan decide to disembark from his old life, his first step will feel credible to audiences. And when the moment comes for Ryan to take that step, Clooney is simply masterful. Clooney has been turning in great performances for years, from crusading types to total goofballs, but he hasn’t been this vulnerable since Out of Sight a decade ago. Opposite a smoldering, mysterious Vera Farmiga, as well as a feisty, intelligent Anna Kendrick, Clooney helps make Up in the Air one of the most satisfying rides of the year.