Coming from the director who brought us Juno and Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air has lofty ambitions to fill. It has to reach that same level of quirk and delight that those previous movies did. It has to be funny, but it has to have emotion. It has to have character breakthroughs and messages. It has to be outstanding. Thankfully, Jason Reitman has once again delivered on every account. Though it isn't quite as good as Juno, Up in the Air is a wonderful film that I look forward to visiting again.
George Clooney plays Ryan, an employee at a company who is hired to fire people at other companies for bosses who don't have the balls to do it themselves. It's a traveling job and he flies all over the nation, being away from home for a good 300+ days of the year, but he loves it. His ultimate goal is to hit the 10 million mile mark because then he will be one of only a handful of members in the prestigious 10 million mile club. At this point, he has become so accustomed to flying that he has his own procedures for getting through airport security quickly. One of his words of wisdom: never get behind old people because they have all kinds of hidden metal on their bodies and never seem to appreciate the short amount of time they have left. On a trip one day, Ryan has a sexual run-in with Alex, played by Vera Farmiga, a woman who also flies around the nation performing her various duties. Despite his loner attitude, he begins to fall in love with her.
Meanwhile, a new, young employee at Ryan's company, Natalie, played by Anna Kendrick, has devised a new business plan that could potentially ground Ryan and the other employees by allowing them to fire people over the Internet. Ryan is upset by the idea, but since Natalie is so young and pioneering this new way of business, Ryan's boss, Craig, played by Jason Bateman, forces Ryan to take her on his next trip to show her the ropes.
Like Juno and Thank You for Smoking, this is not a laugh out loud film. Outside of a few audible chuckles, Up in the Air is more overtly subtle in nature, which can be just as entertaining. The hindrance I foresee, however, is that it won't get the attention it deserves from word of mouth. Those who see it will try to explain why it's so funny to their friends, but to no avail. This is a movie that works incredibly well onscreen, but quoting jokes after the fact will make it seem like dry, inane babble. It must be seen to be understood because it's the set-up and delivery that make it as delightful as it is.
Of course, also like Reitman's previous films, this one has deeper meaning. This is a story of a man realizing that he has been chasing a meaningless dream. Ryan is the type of guy who thinks he's happy being around hundreds of other people every day, but slowly begins to realize on his final trip that he's just as lonely around them as he is back home by himself.
Clooney's character evolves greatly over the course of the film, partially due to the great script and partially due to Clooney's terrific acting capabilities. Each scene plays like an emotional progression for Ryan. Early in the movie, we find out that his sister is getting married and he is being asked to take a cardboard cutout of the soon-to-be-wed couple and take pictures of them around the nation, though they've never really been to any of those places. One late scene creates an excellent parallel between Ryan and those pictures he has been snapping. Just like the pictures that show trips that have never been taken, Ryan realizes that he's traveled all over the country, but he's never really been anywhere. All of those flights have done nothing to fill that empty void he has in his heart.
The beauty of the character is that you begin the movie thinking he is a simple man, a person who is happy with his job and his life. But as each scene peels back his skin, you realize that he is a multi-layered person with hopes and memories and feelings. He says he likes to be alone, but his best memories have all occurred with somebody else.
Not to be confined to the restraints of its fictional world, Up in the Air is also a social commentary on corporate downsizing that is occurring all over the country due to the poor economy. Some of the fired employees in the film pull out pictures of their families and ask what they are supposed to do to put food on the table or put their kids through college. Some even threaten suicide. Though a character study first and foremost, the film has an earnestness in its desire to dig deeper into the problems of society.
Jason Reitman is a real talent and he has once again created a remarkable film that ranks among the top tier of those released this year. Although it runs the exact path you expect it to, never really deviating from its set course, it's not necessarily a bad thing. The surface layers of the story are not the main draw, but rather the underlying emotions and themes that aren't so predictable. Up in the Air is a fantastic movie.
Up in the Air receives 4.5/5