It goes without saying that “Up in the Air,” directed by Jason Reitman, written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the Novel by Walter Kirn, a story about a corporate downsizing hit man, is going to resonate with audiences in this economic climate. The question is, does it play well?
The answer is a resounding yes.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) travels around the country, doing the job that no manager wants to do: he gives caught-off-guard employees the news that their services are no longer required. It’s as impersonal and harsh as can be and Clooney is the perfect person to do it: he lives minimally, travels frequently, and has perfected the art of living without baggage, emotional and otherwise. His boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), orders him to ride the way of the technological future, lay off people via web cam, thus saving travel costs but also demolishing his coveted lifestyle. The future resides in the person of one Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), recent college grad, who has devised the web cam tactic but who also believes in things like love, marriage, kids, house, and material possessions, all of which is anathema to Bingham sees the possibility, indeed, the importance of an anchored life when he attends the wedding of his sister, Julie (Melanie Lynskey). His date is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), his current frequent flier flame, but whether or not this flame burns him leads to the film’s conclusion which is surprisingly powerful and just as sad.
Reitman’s direction is invisible which means that it’s spot-on. With his smug, knowing smile, his aging-well good looks, and his suave confidence, Clooney is effervescent and light as air, all of which make him appear as if time appears to have no affect on him. While those around him have messy breakups, marriage jitters and, in short appear the worse for wear, he goes his merry way, inflicting havoc on the workers he lays off while nothing unsavory or otherwise bad seems to stick to him, at least until the end where, in a magnificent bit of framing, he stands, clueless, in front of a huge airport destination board, paralyzed, metaphorically with nowhere to go.
His foil, in more ways than one, is Kendrick’s Keener, who throws him for a loop. In the “Twilight” series we don’t even catch a glimpse at what she’s able to do, convey, project when given a meaty role. Here we do. Though she’s petite, verbally, physically, and confidence-wise she can easily hold her own with Clooney. Though in the office she’s all business, dressed in various power suits, speaking with the authority and idealism of one just out of school, ready to make her mark on the world, socially she wears her emotions on her sleeve. She actually responds to things – getting dumped; the drastic response of one of the women she fires - whereas Clooney floats over them at 35,000 emotional miles above the various frays.
The scenes that work best (they all do, but these even better) are the ones in which Clooney is being Teflon and dispassionate. They effectively set up the final moments of the film when everything comes crashing down on him. He’s back on the road again but, having been chastened into reality, he really is up in the air and nowhere to go.