Society has become streamlined. The best and brightest function like clockwork, the most tech savvy and connected people operate with speed and efficiency, and the only people with anything meaningful or important to say have done away with all the excess waste in their lives and need not say anything at all. Jason Reitman is one of the few left to not function this way, and he still has a great story to tell.
Reitman’s third film “Up in the Air,” like “Juno” before it, is a socially relevant, timely masterpiece that speaks and relates to adults everywhere with its intelligence and charm.
The film’s hero is Ryan Bingham, as portrayed in one of his best performances by George Clooney. Bingham’s job is to fire people for a living, and he is the best at what he does because he has a way with words, creates no attachments and has micro managed society to the point that he understands the way people think and act. To attain this level of success, Bingham has become a pioneer of the air, attaining more frequent flyer miles than almost any person, and his universally connected status ensures that he can spend all his time without ever being grounded in one place.
It’s his way of life, and his extremely methodized system keeps the business world turning as the economic downturn threatens jobs across the country. In addition to some actors like Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons, Reitman did his research and cast some genuine, recently terminated people for Clooney to fire. These moments and performances are remarkably truthful in their bleakness and emotion. For these scenes alone, Reitman and “Up in the Air” will become a landmark for the ways in which humans face an ever growing problem.
And while the economic theme of the film serves as a mighty overtone, I have not even begun to discuss the psychological depth Reitman’s screenplay has. The film provides Ryan Bingham with two reincarnations of himself. “Just think of me as yourself with a vagina,” says Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a middle-age pioneer of the air that enjoys comparing car rental plans with Bingham and gets turned on by his American Airlines Concierge Membership Card.
Alex has such a warm demeanor about her character. She serves such a nice role in modeling and embodying the similarities of Bingham to paint him as so much more than a character type. As Alex, Farmiga syncs up perfectly with Bingham’s rapid fire dialogue and witty persona, and it gives Farmiga the first opportunity to really do comedy. Who would have guessed her more solemn, dramatic background could honestly allow her to go head to head with George Clooney, one of the most charming men on the face of the Earth? The two have an excellent chemistry.
Then there is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a hotshot straight from Cornell hoping to revolutionize the art of firing people, modeling Bingham 20 years ago. Natalie wants to begin firing people through video chat, grounding all the people in the air and saving a fortune on travel fees. Not only will this drastically change Bingham’s life, he feels it is a harsh thing to do to a person in such a tough situation.
But just as much as Natalie will grow under Bingham’s wing, her common dreams of building a relationship and a home life will make Bingham rethink his drifter lifestyle.
The discussion of this topic gives “Up in the Air” its weight. Through the similar personalities and yet polar ideas of both Natalie and Bingham, the film finds a note of great comedy as the two actors let loose their argumentative chops. But it also strikes some dramatic chords in the way the discussion makes us think.
Bingham makes a speech several times throughout the film about living life with an empty backpack. When we jam all the possessions, institutions and even people into our lives, they slow us down like a heavy backpack. Bingham and his lifestyle are idealized throughout the film. We root for the success of his freedom. And although such freedom is unrealistic and ultimately a lonely way of living life, the film does not attempt to completely change Bingham through melodrama and the clichés of love and friendship.
What I got from the film is that the institutions, the traditions and the little things in life, they can be meaningless and are a waste. The people, although they offer the most burdens of all, are the only things worth carrying. To say people and connections are the most significant things a person needs is fairly generic, and “Up in the Air” even challenges that theory. But it also seems to say, “If your backpack is empty, what’s the use in carrying one?”
These were the things I thought about during “Up in the Air,” which is a beautifully cinematic experience, a mature comedic affair and an emotional ordeal. Reitman is one of today’s best directors at getting people thinking. Even his comedy, as “Up in the Air” is rich and funny, is material suited for intelligent people as it has a vein of truth and thought to it.
Of all of Reitman’s leads, Clooney is perhaps the best at making his audience ask questions of his character and performance. Clooney is wonderful here, displaying more charm and conversational physique than ever. But his Ryan Bingham is something Clooney is often not: vulnerable. There is more pain to be sensed here than when he stood in front of his car exploding in “Michael Clayton.”
And the reason for Clooney’s frailty and nakedness is in Ryan Bingham’s bleak future. “Up in the Air’s” ending is a difficult read, but I view it as a rebirth. A rebirth is the service Bingham is offering to all whom he fires. And through his thought provoking screenplay, Reitman is doing the same for his audience.