Most movies exist in a sort of cultural vacuum, too addicted to rehashing genre conventions to explore the realities of the contemporary world outside the cinema’s doors. The most successful, transformative filmmakers have transcended those limitations, producing assured stylistic works that also say something about the times we live in.
Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, his best film, reaffirms his up-and-coming place in the pantheon of those great directors. With a precise tone that expertly blends humor and pathos, it’s a movie rife with small, truthful moments and pitch perfect character detail. It’s also a film of the American here and now, rooted in an on-the-go, technologically oriented society facing a crisis only survivable through genuine human connections.
The picture, adapted from the Walter Kirn novel of the same title, stars George Clooney as a corporate downsizer named Ryan Bingham. He’s paid to fire people, spending his life passing through antiseptic airport terminals, inhaling the recycled air on planes and bringing bad news from one quick layover to the next. He loves his solitary existence and cherishes the experience of avoiding the concerns of reality, simply soaring through the clouds from one rental car depot and low-key airport hotel to the next.
Things change, however, when his boss (Jason Bateman) brings in recent college graduate Natalie (Anna Kendrick) in an attempt to freshen up their business model. If the professional firer wants to avoid the unemployment line himself, the boss implies, he’d do well to take Natalie with him on his continental tour. At the same time, the commitment phobic Ryan has begun a series of dalliances with Alex (Vera Farmiga), a colleague who tells him that when he thinks of her “think of you with a vagina.”
More comprehensively than any movie I’ve seen, Up in the Air evokes the essence of the airport experience. It reconstitutes the mundane activity of passing through security and boarding your plane as one with profound implications. The airport is analogous to Limbo, a place that’s suspended between here and there. It’s the launching pad for people looking for an escape, heaven for those wedded to their work and forever on the move. With images like a long shot that frames Clooney against floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on a runway and the tracking shots that follow him on an automated mover as he heads towards his gate, Reitman presents the airport as the mirror of a man lost in a sea of commotion.
In playing that man, Clooney subverts his dapper image in small, resonant steps. The character’s inner troubles set in subtly in his performance, which first presents Ryan as almost comically sure of himself and set in his ways. When the actor beams his characteristically broad smile during one of his motivational speeches, as he talks about the need to lighten the load of one’s personal connections, you believe every bit of what he’s selling. Yet Clooney draws out the loneliness that eats at the character by gradually employing less of that smile and emphasizing a pained look that jarringly contrasts with his heretofore dapper demeanor. Prolonged silences derived from deep rooted pain supplant the cockiness, Clooney’s work shifts to emphasize the still sadness and Reitman employs close-ups that let his star reveal an unexpected vulnerability.
It’s to the great credit of both men that they keep Ryan grounded and complicated, even as he takes on the burden of symbolizing a society driven to fatal distraction by its addiction to modern conveniences. He’s both a representative of the capitalist system run amok and a guardian of humanist principles. When Natalie proposes the institution of an Internet firing system he vehemently objects, and he has a talent for instilling feelings of hope and dignity in the people he lays off. As he had in Juno, Reitman demonstrates a gift for drawing out the emotion in a sequence, staying focused on the right characters for the right amount of time, never hurrying to the next shot and (in his work with co-writer Sheldon Turner) crafting dialogue that gets at the heart of who we are and what we feel.
And that, ultimately, is what Up in the Air is about. With interviews with real laid off workers sprinkled throughout, and the threat of unemployment looming, the movie tells the story of a man learning to value more than the frequent flier miles he’s accrued and the various advantage points he’s saved at chains like Hertz and Hilton. It’s about breaking free from the corporate system, celebrating the freedom to act spontaneously and daring to reach out to others, no matter how messy things might get. The naturalistic flow of its dialogue, which unfolds in the rhythms of real world conversations, and the ease with which the narrative combines moments of sharp, deadpan comedy and heartfelt drama further establish the 32-year-old Reitman as perhaps the great filmmaking talent of his generation.
The Upside: This is a film of enormous, subtle power, crafted with an eye for the complexities of human behavior. It stays with you for a long time.
The Downside: There really isn’t one.
On the Side: The National Board of Review named it the best film of the year, the first in what will surely be many such designations.
Watch the trailer for Up in the Air below: