Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has a job that keeps him flying 200 days/ year in Up In The Air — he’s a corporate downsizer brought in to fire excess employees. It’s a tough job and Bingham has made a career out of detaching, disassociating from anything that could tie him down, including his long-estranged siblings.
Perpetually on the go, he meets up with fellow frequent flier Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) and they flirt as they empty their wallets onto the hotel bar table, comparing rewards programs and avoiding anything personal. They end up in bed and the next morning search for schedule overlaps so they can rendezvous again.
Meanwhile, Bingham’s boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), has been bowled over by the young, naive efficiency expert Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who is convinced that they can just as easily fire people via videoconference, saving millions by not having the senior staff in the air.
Director Jason Reitman has a light touch with this material, sufficiently so that I expect he’ll see an Academy nomination for Best Director. There are many points in the movie where it could have turned maudlin or sappy, but all were deftly sidestepped.
For example, in one scene Bingham offers to walk his estranged younger sister Julie (Melanie Lynskey) down the church aisle at her wedding, but she informs him that she’s asked someone else already. That could have become a cloying, sappy scene but was instead presented without pretension of “a deeper meaning,” making it a far more satisfying and believable scene.
Road warriors have an on-the-road life that’s often quite different from their home life, something that’s played out in a surprising manner in the movie. Again, it’s a surprise not because we expect things to be exactly as they seem in life, but precisely because we are so used to Hollywood storylines where things aren’t believable but instead proceed in boring, safe paths.
There’s also the emotionally challenging task of firing someone from a company that just doesn’t need them any more. Multiple times in the film we see a montage of employees being fired and their various reactions. It deeply affects Natalie, who ends up in the field watching how Bingham goes through the process of terminating employees.
“We are here to make limbo tolerable” he explains at one point, and later reminds her that “we take people at their most fragile and set them adrift …” The core relationships in the movie are between Ryan and Alex, who have a steamy affair, and between Ryan and Natalie, the latter of whom acts as a reminder of his younger, more optimistic self. As both relations follow their inevitable course, we learn quite a bit about Bingham, and yet, we never really learn anything about this man who has spent his life keeping his metaphorical backpack as light as possible.
I’ve seen a lot of movies in 2009, but few of them have left me both entertained and thoughtful. Up In The Air accomplishes this difficult task and makes it look easy. Clooney has a suave, elegant style that’s becoming more and more reminiscent of Cary Grant, and Vera Farmiga brings a sexy, thoughtful energy to her role. All in all, a splendid film, highly recommended and one that I think has a good shot at the Best Picture Academy Award. I know it’s one of my favorites of the year.