Originally printed in Mayday Magazine, February 2010
Jason Reitman’s third effort, Up in the Air is a deceptively complex film. And that’s really no mean feat, all things considered. The film’s declared subject matter is fairly weighty on it’s own; it touches on themes of isolation, rebirth and change, while providing timely insight on the current economic state of North America.
George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a professional downsizer who spends over 300 days of the year on the road essentially firing people from companies that lacked the courage to do it themselves. He quite literally lives out of his suitcase, in hotels and on airplanes. And he likes it this way; it means he can sidestep the burdens of adulthood like car payments, home ownership, a committed relationship and most social obligations.
As he approaches his goal of 10 million miles with American Airlines, his company throws him a curve; new recruit Natalie (Anna Kendrick, who I’m told was in Twilight) has a plan that would allow the company to save the company nearly all of their (presumably astronomical) travel expenses. Ryan’s personal life has also thrown him a curve in the form of Alex, a woman who appears to be his perfect match (played by Vera Farmiga). When Ryan takes Natalie under his wing, he’s forced to re-examine his philosophy.
The story, as Reitman tells it, is character-centric. This is one of Reitman’s greatest strengths as a director, and he’s cast the film accordingly. Clooney, Kendrick, and Farmiga all deliver terrific performances. Much has already been said about how strong the chemistry between the three leads is, and I’m not sure enough can be. Maybe it’s because I’m coming from the theatre world where cast chemistry is really all you have to work with, but I really was impressed with the performances in the film.
Reitman’s two previous works — 2006’s Thank You For Smoking and 2007’s Juno — are both solid and character-driven. However, both these films tended to treat their characters as punchlines, whereas Up in the Air takes its characters more seriously.
The economical production design and script keeps the focus on the characters. Reitman never oversells a big moment, but never undersells the small ones, balancing darker themes with lighter comic elements quite well. All in all, it’s a solid, performance-driven movie.
But what about this deceptive complexity? While the film is very much straight-forward in terms of how it’s shot, paced and written, it’s underlying themes run deep. Ryan is forced to reassess his entire identity when his lifestyle is challenged. He’s forced to examine his philosophy of relationships. The film even goes as far as to suggest that he might be a lost cause; a victim of his chosen comforts. The film presents itself as the “George Clooney being charming yet vulnerable show”, but it’s at it’s best when it takes that form and steers it away from it’s assumed course.
It’s probably not a perfect movie, but I’m not sure that’s all that important. I suppose it’s not necessarily a risky or ambitious movie; Reitman doesn’t use the film as a basis for experimentation. But it is entertaining, engaging and perhaps most importantly, one that I wanted to talk about after I saw. And in our world of movies about giant fighting robots (from outer space!), it’s hard to not give a strong recommendation to an imperfect movie that’s still worth talking about.