Image source. Copyright Paramount Pictures, 2009.
Up in the Air tries really hard to be a movie of the “moment,” a movie for the 2008 financial crisis like what The Graduate and Easy Rider were for the 60s. It almost pulls it off. References to the economic doldrums abound in this movie – the opening shots where people react to being laid off; the soon-to-be-wed bride and groom (Melanie Lynskey, Danny McBride) who use traveling gnomes because they can’t afford to go on an actual honeymoon; the fired woman (Tamala Jones) who calmly states she’s going to jump off a bridge and then actually does so. You can almost hear the movie breathe “These are really tough times” down your neck while you watch.
Against this backdrop, director Jason Reitman makes a story out of frequent flier and star employee Ryan Bingham (George Clooney). Ryan thrives on movement, the next flight to catch, the next Hilton room, the next sexy one-night stand. His overriding ambition? Reaching 10 million flyer miles. It’s a blatantly picture-perfect setup for a character whose personal life almost exactly mirrors his obsession with always being on the move. Ryan barely talks to his family back in Wisconsin, groans at the thought of taking some pictures for his sister’s wedding, and proudly declares his utter lack of interest in marriage or kids. And he gets handsomely paid to deliver motivational speeches, the kind of self-improvement junk that explodes all over the place in economic crises, that say just as much. The closest thing he has to a meaningful relationship in this movie is a casual fling he has with another frequent traveler named Alex (Vera Farmiga).
From there, the movie unfolds as you might expect. Ryan is given the task of training a new employee, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a recent college grad who acts like a professional know-it-all but inside longs for, as she puts it, a 6-foot-1 man who “loves his golden Lab.” Through their trip together, Ryan, lo and behold, is forced to face the emptiness of his personal life. This mulling gets serious after he attends his sister’s wedding. There, he’s pushed against his will into trying to console the groom, who gets cold feet thinking about the supposed meaninglessness of marriage and family life. This, combined with the time Ryan spends with Alex, makes Ryan question the very foundations of the life he’s living. Who would’ve known – spending time with people actually just might be worth it.
Except for a slight twist towards the end in Ryan and Alex’s relationship, this movie has little to offer in terms of original plotlines or character arcs. If anything, its character sketches flatly contradict themselves. Natalie, the girl who wails over how her boyfriend Brian breaks up via text message, proposes turning the firing process into a systematized workflow performed via remote computer desktop. It sure saves a lot of money, just like that text-message break-up saved Brian an hour of his day. (If Natalie were any more financially savvy, she’d suggest simply sending e-mails to rejected employees instead.) Ryan, Mr. I-Don’t-Care-About-Relationships, actually excels at connecting with his clients; in one telling scene, he gently encourages a livid worker (J.K. Simmons) to pursue his love of French culinary arts. The movie touches on this tension between both Ryan and Natalie’s professional and personal lives, but never really resolves it. It depicts scene after scene of Ryan laying people off, but although Ryan supposedly appreciates the value of human relationships by the end of the movie, the movie never forces Ryan to confront the appallingly cold-hearted nature of his work. After all, by the end of the movie, Ryan still appears to be working at the same job, even though he’s supposedly learned the meaning of relationships. How can Ryan appreciate the value of human relationships and still keep the same, awful job of firing people? Losing a job is stressful, difficult, and even painful, but for all of Reitman’s attempts to make this a “moment” picture, the final product kicks most of the tough economic and emotional stuff into a sideshow, instead focusing on the simpler, far more cliché storyline of Ryan supposedly learning the meaning of relationships. This movie isn’t meant to be an examination of the fallout of the financial crisis, of course, but Reitman’s surface treatment of his plot and characters muddles his message and leaves us feeling a little less-than-satisfied.
That all said, Up in the Air still does a good job of providing an evening of solid, uplifting entertainment. The dialogue is by turns sharp, funny, and touching. Clooney immerses himself into the role perfectly, contradictions and all; I can’t imagine anyone else who could get away with saying “I stereotype, it’s faster.” And Anna Kendrick is an absolute knockout as the uppity Ivy League kid still prey to her emotions. The movie zips along its running time like a two-hour flight without any turbulence. Watch Up in the Air, laugh, and in a week, you won’t remember it. But in the moment, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a nicer ride.
Up in the Air
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Zach Galifianakis, J.K. Simmons
Running Time: 109 minutes
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Written by: Sheldon Turner, Jason Reitman