Up in the Air
A film that ask us to care not only about those who are being laid off but also the people doing the firing as well? Clearly this is a joke right? These were some of thoughts going through my head during the first twenty minutes of Jason Reitman's latest work, Up in the Air. I will fully admit that my early bias towards this film was due to the fact that it seemed to be making light of a subject matter that hit home personally for me. A mere two weeks prior to seeing Up in the Air, the company I work for had the tough task of cutting a lot of jobs. Not the best way to usher in the Christmas season to say the least. Though I was fortunate enough to survive the round of layoffs many people, including some good friends, were let go. It was a decision that greatly impacted those who were laid off, those who remained, and those that had the extremely tough task of deciding to let go people go. So what does this have to do with Up in the Air? Everything and nothing depending on your own perspective.
George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizer who spends most of his days firing people on behalf of companies too frightened to do it themselves. Ryan's work as a downsizer has him constantly travelling and living out of a suitcase for the majority of the year. While others may find this unbearable, Ryan relishes in it as he views it as the ultimate form of freedom. Yet the emergence of a young hotshot, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), threatens to permanently ground Ryan's highflying lifestyle. Natalie has created a business model that would allow the firm he works for to fire people via video conferencing. After witnessing people's reactions to being laid off first hand, Ryan believes that a face-to-face human element is needed to facilitate things smoothly. Especially if it is in the form of fake compassion, which Ryan has practically made an art-form. Ryan's boss (Jason Bateman) believes that Natalie's idea will save the company millions in travel expenses but decides to have Ryan take her out into the field as an experiment. This does not sit well with Ryan whose freewheeling traveling ways has now become rather cramped. To further complicate things, Ryan meets a fellow frequent flyer, Alex (Vera Farmiga), who might cause him to redefine all the things he considers important in life.
If Up in the Air had come out in another year, where it did not hit so close to home, there is a good chance I may not have loved it as much as I do. This is not to say that it is not a good film in its own right. It is just that, if I was not getting married in a few months myself, I would have probably found the wedding subplot unnecessary. The film really tries to cover a lot of different topics, maybe too many, in a rather short amount of time. Still, I must give credit to director Jason Reitman for keeping all the threads tightly woven. It is tough to make light of job loss in a way that will get the audience both laughing and reflecting. Yet this is exactly what the film achieves.
Ryan is a compelling character because his cutting cynical views on our unrealistic need for things (i.e. home, job, marriage, etc.) at times rings very true. Ryan views not being tied down to people and places as the ultimate freedom. Yet the freedom that Ryan enjoys so much is far more constricting than he knows. Ryan actually embodies everything that he normally preaches against in his "backpack" seminars. Instead of aspiring to have a family or owning material possessions such as a house, Ryan craves becoming one of only seven people in the world to achieve the highest frequent flyer miles status. He may not be able to tell you about what is going on in his siblings lives but he can rattle off all the best eateries and car rental places in every city. He keeps hotel room keys like a badge of honour.
The thing I liked about the way Reitman displays Ryan's many contradictions is how subtle it is at first. It only gradually show itself through several small, but key, moments with both Alex and Natalie. Speaking of Alex and Natalie, it must be noted that Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick give exceptional performances in this film. I would even go as far as saying that they literally steal the movie right out of Clooney's hands. Yes Clooney's work in Up in the Air is on par with his best performances in films such as Michael Clayton and Three Kings. Yet it is Farmiga and Kendrick that really make this picture shine.
On the surface Vera Farmiga's Alex is merely the female that might actually be able crack Ryan's cold exterior. As the film progresses we see that Vera's role is far more interesting, and complicated, than just the typical love interest. Farmiga gives the film such weight without ever having to overplay the role. There are so many subtle nuances in her performance that is really fascinating to watch. The same argument can be made for Kendrick who, despite having the flashier role, keeps her character grounded as she runs the gambit of emotions. Kendrick is required to be the shark, the comic relief, the conscience, and the hope in the picture. Natalie has the book smarts but her ambition blinds her to the fact that she is not the female Ryan. She is the person in your office who knows nothing about your day to day work, yet has all these great ideas to make your work easier. You hate her at first but eventually get to understand her and, dare I say, care about her on a certain level.
As I mentioned above, Up in the Air really connected with me as everything mentioned in this film hit extremely close to home on a personal level. It is a film that not only asks us to question what we want out life? But, more importantly, who do we want in the seat beside us while we are on this ongoing trip that life provides us. I did find that the film really struggled at times to reach the hopefully ending. If it was up to me, I would have ended the picture with the night shot of Ryan sitting on his bed looking aimlessly out of the hotel window after a key scene, which I will not spoil here, is revealed. Also in any other year I probably would have cut some of the stuff with the wedding as well. Who knows? Maybe I will reflect on this film again in a few years and see if I am still fond of the film. Yet as it stands today, Up in the Air connected with me in a way few other films have this year. Definitely one of the better films of this year.