It seems a bit strange, even sacrilegious to say that a film about people losing their jobs is a great film, funny and moving. But "Up In The Air", the new film from writer – director Jason Reitman ("Juno", "Thank You For Smoking") is a very good (great?) film deftly mixing comedy, funny and dark, with real human emotions and familiar situations. Starring George Clooney," Air" is a film to watch when the Awards season begins.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) plays a man who lives on airplanes; Ryan works for a company who hires him out to travel around the country and fire people who are being laid off. Basically, he does the dirty work for people who are too afraid to do it themselves. He spends so much time in airports, on airplanes, and in chain hotels, these have become his new home. He prefers these places to his actual apartment in Omaha and dreads returning there. He also has a goal. He wants to earn a coveted award from his airline of choice for flying more than a million miles. Then, his boss (Jason Bateman) tells him they have just hired a new college graduate, Natalie (Anna Kendrick, "Twilight") who has come up with a revolutionary way for them to do their job, through teleconferencing. But before they implement this plan, he wants Natalie to travel with Ryan, to learn the ropes. Ryan meets another fellow traveler, Alex (Vera Farmiga) who seems equally at home in airports and hotels. They hook up and realize they want to meet as often as possible. Both of these women begin to change the way Ryan thinks. But is it too late for him to change his life?
It is almost amazing how accomplished and interesting the short career of director Jason Reitman has been. Sure, he is the son of mega-director Ivan (of "Ghostbusters" fame), but Jason's films have shown a remarkable amount of talent, skill and thought. His first film, "Thank You For Smoking" is a scathing, very funny satire about lobbyists. His second, "Juno", propelled Ellen Page to stardom and earned some Awards buzz. Now, with "Up In The Air", the director has created his most accomplished, introspective, meaningful and interesting film yet. "Air" is sure to be a contender for many awards in the next few months.
Reitman's "Air" is the story of a man who travels across country and fires people for a living. And because of this, Ryan Bingham is basically an unlikable guy, which isn't a bad thing at all, but it is a strange thing to find in a major studio release. And a lot of credit for our interest in watching Ryan's journey has to go to Clooney. We get a feeling for Bingham, who he is, what he is, why he is, all of which is illustrated very succinctly in a voice over from Ryan. Ryan seems to revel in the world he has created for himself. Always on the move, always in another airplane, another hotel room. At one point, Ryan swipes a frequent customer card and announces to us the employee is programmed to great him in a specific way. The way Ryan (and Clooney) tells us about this barely hides the frequent flyer's pleasure at having reached such a lofty level of business with this other corporation. While this reveals a lot about Ryan's business dealings to us, it also shows a lot about his character. He seems to revel in the fact that some anonymous woman, who could care less about him (and vice versa) has to greet him in a specific way. This is what constitutes a relationship in his world and he is all the happier for it. And of course, we can see how shallow and empty his world is, so we feel more than a little empathy for him. All of these feelings come flooding through us even as we begin to have opposite feelings towards him, because we can't forget he goes around firing people, taking their livelihood from them.
But as soon as these conflicts start to stir within us, they quickly disappear. We start to like Ryan and care for him. If he didn't do this job, someone else would. And he doesn't seem to revel in the actual details of the job; he seems to try to be as empathetic to the people around him as possible. Someone else would probably be less kind to the unfortunate souls.
Clooney's performance seems effortless and this makes Ryan seem all the more viable a person. And because of this, I have no doubt he will be nominated for a slew of awards in the next few weeks.
Wisely, Reitman does a very interesting thing to help make Ryan all the more human. Ryan's boss (Jason Bateman) introduces Natalie (Anna Kendrick "New Moon", "Twilight") as a new hotshot college graduate with some great ideas. And soon, the idea is revealed. If they start to do their job through teleconferencing, the company will save a lot of money on airfare, hotels, etc. This will effectively ground Ryan, causing him to panic slightly. But he also realizes physically sitting in front of someone they are firing helps the situation. Sure, it is a crappy situation to begin with, but firing people long distance isn't going to help an already bad situation get any better. This is illustrated when they give the new system a trial run.
In a way, they make Natalie even worse than Ryan and this helps to make Ryan more likable.
Natalie and Ryan take a road trip together, to give Natalie some real world experience before the company fully adopts her plan. This trip becomes a growing experience for the recent college grad as Ryan tries to impart everything he has learned to her.
One night, Ryan meets Alex (Vera Farmiga) at the hotel he is staying at. They have dinner, drinks and start to flirt over who has better Executive Rewards Cards. Ryan recognizes a kindred spirit and they really get along well, so they start to try to plan their schedules around when they can hook up together. The more they see each other, the more attracted they become and Ryan begins to question his existence, everything he has set-up for his life.
The more we see and live with Ryan, the more we grow to like him, the more we grow to accept him.
Reitman also uses a bunch of actual people who were recently fired as the victims of Ryan and Natalie's work. This gives the entire film a greater resonance and makes it seem more personal. Each of the real people reportedly gives the same response they gave when they were actually fired. These people are presented in a couple of quick montages giving us an overview of what Ryan does everyday, how many people he has to deal with, how many negative reactions and what has led him to become slightly numb but also horrified at Natalie's new plans.
This sums up what makes "Up In The Air" so successful. Most of the things in the film, the characters, the story, their actions, the places they go, have at least two sides. Reitman and his cast and crew show us both, and this helps make everything more interesting and real.
If you haven't already seen it, go!