Sunday, January 17, 2010

Up In the Air

Few aspects of life were more directly affected by the attacks of September 11, 2001, than air travel. Additional security measures made airport navigation more difficult. Friends and relatives could no longer greet arriving passengers as they stepped off the plane and walked through the gate. On the whole, everything became less personal, but for impersonal people, all of those “restrictions” became perks. Up In the Air tells the bittersweet story of a man who has no meaningful human connections. In a time of economic hardship when most people suffer, he thrives like never before.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) lives for air travel. “Last year,” he says, “I spent three hundred and twenty-two days on the road, which means that I had to spend forty-three miserable days at home.” He works for a company that helps businesses outsource the firing of their employees. If a manager doesn’t have the guts/decency to dismiss an employee in person, Ryan Bingham shows up as a corporate executive and takes all the heat. When Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a bright, young co-worker suggests cutting travel costs company-wide by firing people via online video, Ryan fears that his entire way of life faces extinction.

Ryan understands the importance of firing someone face-to-face, and he really does care about others, but he doesn’t understand the importance of personal relationships. When his sister accuses him of being totally isolated in his airport life, he says, “Isolated? I’m surrounded.” But she’s right. If the Internet were to make Ryan irrelevant, he would have no excuse for his lonely, unsentimental lifestyle.

George Clooney brings Ryan Bingham to life, giving complexity to a character that lesser actors would have simplified. Ryan exudes confidence, much of which is authentic, but he has another side, too. Some part of him does wish for real relationships, and he’s lonelier than he even knows. In a movie that dips frequently into satire, Clooney keeps the experience grounded by making Ryan Bingham as layered and believable as possible. He’s kind of a jerk, but we like him. The entire cast turns in fine performances, but Clooney anchors the ship.

Writer/Director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking and Juno) adapted the screenplay from a pre-9/11 novel, but the film completely captures our current recession-era culture. If the script does follow the book closely, I would be amazed, because Up In the Air is truly a film for our time. It’s often amusing, featuring some laugh-out-loud moments, but sadness is never too far away. Recessions are hard on almost everyone, and relationships provide the primary comfort amidst hard times ... for most people, at least. The scenes of employees being fired ring terribly true, but even more painful are the employees’ statements along the lines of, “At least I have my family.” Ryan Bingham doesn’t. For all his success, he doesn’t have anyone to share it with.

I expected for Ryan to learn some important lessons, but I was surprised by the harsh reality that accompanied those lessons: long-broken relationships don’t heal overnight. This isn’t “A Christmas Carol” where the spirits do it all in one night (or by the end of the 109-minute running time). Up In the Air boasts superb acting, a tight script, and some very relevant morals, but the experience can only be described as bittersweet. On multiple occasions, the movie heads straight for some comfortable film clich├ęs only to yank the rug out from under us. Contrary to ingrained belief, movies aren’t required to give their characters all that we would wish for them, and Up In the Air doesn’t shy away from sadness. It belongs in the category of “Dramedy,” and while it leans more towards comedy, it doesn’t deliver all of the feel-good goods that many comedy-lovers would hope for. It’s a timely cautionary satire about struggle, success, and loneliness, and as Jason Reitman’s third feature, it marks the third time that he’s made one of the year’s best films. Not a bad track record.


Click here to view the trailer.


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual content.

Up In the Air has a steady flow of language, as well as some brief, rear female nudity. More than any objectionable content, though, the film is for adults because of its themes. The character arcs, the struggles, and the primary forces that move the plot would all be lost on children. It’s a movie about grown-ups and for grown-ups.

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