Up In The Air (2009)

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RB score:10/10

Billed as a fun romp through the world of the road warrior – those who live out of a suitcase, it was that indeed yet it was more, following the pattern of other Reitman movies – an exploration of modern life that amazingly steers clear of familiar formulas.  George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who has a job that allows him to live exactly the expense-account lifestyle he wants.  His company, euphemistically called “Career Transitions”, sends Ryan around the country as a sort of hatchet-man for hire.  Ryan takes us from the arrival gate to the rental car lot to the hotel in true road-warrior style.  Layoffs and pink slips were at the forefront of the national consciousness when this movie was made, and it was a novel topic for mainstream box office.  The premise is a tad unrealistic: We all know that downsizing companies are not about to pay someone else to terminate their employees when they would just have their managers do it, but it is interesting that critics had no problem with that plot point. Perhaps it’s because companies take so many inexplicable actions that nothing surprises us any more.  Ryan loves his life on the road and has everything about travel down to a science – one carry on bag, how to determine which line is moving faster at security, even a cynical appreciation of the use of his name when it comes up on airline employee screens as a frequent traveler.

Somehow, Clooney’s Ryan is an oddly likeable character, even as we witness him giving people devastating news and then efficiently moving on to the next airport. No one wears a business suit better but the guy isn’t superficial.  I think his likability stems from his complete and brutal honesty, both with the audience and with himself, that sort of distracts us after the ax has fallen.  He freely acknowledges his lack of roots and inability to form lasting relationships with refreshing, witty and nonjudgmental candor.    One evening at an airport Hilton lounge, he strikes up a conversation with a woman executive, played flawlessly by Vera Farmiga.  I’ve not seen this actress before but as usual Reitman’s casting is spot on.  Farmiga as Alex is fit, elegantly dressed and beautifully coiffed, providing a perfect visual foil for Ryan.  Chemistry is evident when Alex and Ryan take out their wallets and start comparing notes on hotel, car and airline loyalty programs, with sparks flying almost immediately.  After spending the night together, they part ways with the understanding that this will be a commitment free relationship,. meeting up when their travel schedules permit, and with no expectations on either end.  In a way Ryan has met his perfect woman.

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Things are not so perfect after he returns to the office.  His boss Craig, played with his usual faultless timing by Jason Bateman, has hired a newly graduated rising star employee Natalie Keener, played by Anna Kendrick.  Craig is such a realistic “management” type; Reitman avoids relegating him to the cliche boss role but instead captures what all too many managers are like; less evil than they are clueless after having lost touch with their front line operations.  Craig is so sold on Natalie as his new star employee, that he calls everyone to the home office to see her presentation on cost cutting.  True to Millennial form, Natalie demonstrates how the company can save money by conducting terminations using videoconferencing technology, and thus pretty much eliminating the travel budget.  Perky, precise and with a severe ponytail and not a single hair out of place, Natalie concludes her presentation by reminding the road warriors that they won’t need to be on the road any more.  At this point we are not expecting anything more out of Ryan other than disappointment at being grounded, but there is where Reitman’s dexterity comes into play.  We find out that Ryan has a little more depth than that, and brings something more to his job that fooled us initially into thinking it’s easier than it is, because like anyone who gets good at something, he makes it look easier than it is.  He puts Natalie on the spot and asks her to role-play a termination.  She’s full of confidence yet her lack of experience becomes immediately apparent.  Like managers everywhere with a golden child employee, Craig isn’t about to be convinced of any negatives surrounding Natalie’s ideas, and instead sends her out on the road so she can learn more about the business from Ryan, prior to implementing her proposals.

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It’s an interesting subject to begin with, the plight of downsized workers in America, and not a particularly cheery one.  To his credit, Reitman hired quite a few real life unemployed people and asked them to describe what it was like.  The young director deals with some heavy issues with a surprisingly light touch, such as the uncomfortable truth that it isn’t all that easy for people in their 40s and 50s to find work, no matter the experience level.  And this is not to say that the movie trivializes unemployment, or some of its real and tragic outcomes.  I’m just impressed at Reitman’s ability to convey his insights in a subtle fashion.  He really is showing us views of America at 30,000 feet, and the symbolism there is striking.

The next phase of the movie is all road-trip fun and character development.  Many of the more humorous sequences occur as Ryan and Alex next meet in Ft. Lauderdale, with Natalie in tow.   Beautiful filming on location and more product placement for Hilton Hotels and American Airlines.   Another nod to the Millennial generation is given in how Natalie’s boyfriend breaks up with her via text message., however, Reitman deftly works to keep his characters and storylines from ever becoming two-dimensional.  Ryan not only surprises us with different sides to his character, he develops real feelings for Alex, an increasingly complex personality.  Ryan may have met his female road-warrior soul mate, but for everyone who has thought they have found this person late in life, we are reminded that the more of the story that has already been written, the less likely it is to be able to start a new one.   Most importantly, the relationship between Ryan and Natalie completely avoids any romcom temptation to turn into some vapid romance – and remains solidly and unambiguously that of teacher-student, mentor-mentee, however you wish to think of it.  In this way I think the movie celebrates real-life connections and friendships very convincingly.

Ryan has an imperfect relationship with his siblings and extended family – we are taken along for this ride as well, and it is just as entertaining and insightful as every other aspect of this film.  There is a pivotal moment towards the end when Ryan reaches a milestone in his travels, and by that time many themes are resolved one way or another – but not all.  To say more would be a spoiler.  Superb writing and direction, not to mention fine performances, yield a finished product that gets even better with subsequent viewings.  Many thanks to reader Paul for reminding me about this film.  It is exceedingly enjoyable viewing and a slick accomplishment for young director Jason Reitman, nominated for 6 Academy awards (Picture, Director, all 3 leads, no wins) and of course a boatload of other awards and nominations. For anyone who missed it during its successful theatre run 5 years ago, it’s a safe must-add to your home collection.

And, I might never get to say this after a review again:

Thanks for flying American!

3 thoughts on “Up In The Air (2009)

  1. Great review RB and a perfect 10/10!
    I’d say we both really enjoyed Up in the Air, and while it was a high budget film, Reitman made it feel like more an indy. I’d also say Clooney was at the top of his game here. I haven’t actually seen much of his work post One Fine Day but the entire film rests on his shoulders here, and there wasn’t a misstep.

    I do think the film’s ending indicates a new direction for Ryan. He’s back where he started, but I don’t believe that he wants to be there. The whole film is about him trying to keep his lifestyle intact, and then when he decides to push for something more, he doesn’t get it. So when he gets his ten million miles, it’s not the exciting prospect it once was because he’s realised what else he could have. He doesn’t have any use for it. At the end, when he’s standing in front of the destination board and he drops his luggage. Leave it there and it’s a sad ending – he’s on the road again, still isolated and living the way he always was. But then the talking heads at the end are talking about new beginnings so I’ve always taken it as a hopeful ending – he’s back where he was but he’s seen the light.

    • Agreed, Clooney was in fine form here. Interestingly, I could have seen the role of Alex played by Michelle Pfeiffer as well, speaking of One Fine Day! Not that Vera Farmiga didn’t do an outstanding job but I wonder if Reitman ever considered Michelle for the part.
      I have a slightly different take on the ending. When he got the 10 mil, yes it was anticlimactic in a way but it was also kind of a resolution, it touched me when the Captain asked him where he was from and he replied, “,,,,Here.” Then in the airport when he dropped the luggage and looked up at the flight display, I sort of felt like he was momentarily letting go of whatever baggage he had been starting to accumulate (family obligations…. feelings for Alex….) and while, he wasn’t exactly celebrating his return to road warrior status, it was like he was at home again, in his element, in his own comfort zone. I like your summation: He’s back where he was but he’s seen the light.

      • As always I like your take on things better than mine. It has been a while, I think I should probably watch Up in the Air again with a different perspective.

        Looking forward to your next post.

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