To say that Up In The Air is a product of its times would be a gross understatement. Set against the palpably, painfully fresh backdrop of the world’s current economic depression, its story follows Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), whose job is to fire people on behalf of giant corporations whose middle management is too lazy or cowardly to do it themselves. Endlessly flying across the vast United States, Bingham’s life is a neverending series of routines: he has an apartment in Omaha, Nebraska but is never there, preferring instead to live on the road, gleefully existing in a world of loyalty cards and airport lounges en route to racking up his personal goal of ten million air miles. When a bright young employee (Anna Kendrick) pitches a new, all-internet way of sacking the unfortunates, however, Bingham’s way of life is threatened. And when Ryan meets equally status-obsessed beauty Alex (Vera Farmiga), he must face up to the idea that the lone road may not go on forever.
Jason Reitman’s third film, as is evident from the above, maintains and elaborates on the comedic style he has quickly gained renown for. All three of his movies are comedies, certainly, but all have a serious heartbeat thudding away underneath them too, whether it’s the effects of the tobacco industry (Thank You For Smoking), teen pregnancy (Juno) or here, the titanic number of layoffs caused by worldwide financial downturn. Each of his three also places a principled, direct, affable protagonist at its core – Aaron Eckhart’s smoother-than-honey Nick Naylor, Ellen Page’s wise-beyond-her-years Juno and Clooney’s Bingham – and throws a strong-willed woman into the mix: Katie Holmes’ anything-goes reporter Heather Holloway, Jennifer Garner’s hopeful adopter Vanessa Loring and Kendrick’s Natalie Keener respectively.
The links go deeper than that. Like Reitman’s previous flicks this piece is about human interaction or in Bingham’s case, a lack thereof. For all of his airline loyalty and endless hotel stays, Ryan really has no friends as the film begins. He speaks to a sister he hasn’t seen in years, and though an exchange with his Omaha neighbour hints at a romantic history, he really spends as little time with people as he can. His boss (Jason Bateman sporting terrific facial hair) phones him, all his co-workers are also perpetually airborne and it seems like the only people who even know Ryan’s name are the staff who cheerily greet him at check in. Reitman’s airports are beautifully shot – swooping cameras among the crowds, Clooney’s calm demeanour played against the chaos of suitcases and late boarding around him. The shots depicting Bingham’s masterfully honed routines, from going through security gates to packing a suitcase, are kinetic, swift and much like Bingham himself: fold, zip, snap, drop and roll out. Always in the same order, and ruthlessly organised.
Clooney in these opening scenes is at his very best. Bingham’s one of those once-in-a-career characters who fits the actor like a bespoke suit: like Clooney himself, Bingham’s an attractive, smooth-talking older man who’s constantly on the move. Bingham’s “life choice” (as he calls it) of not really having a home is strange but not unbelievable given the frequency with which everyone seems to jet off somewhere new. Bingham’s ‘motivational’ speech series “What’s In Your Backpack?” actively encourages the cutting of all ties, and it’s amazing that Clooney’s charisma and charm manage to make us believe in an unbearably hollow philosophy.
Had it not been for the extraordinarily tough field he faced in 2009, Clooney surely would’ve walked off with the second Oscar that this performance richly deserves. Rare is it that an actor inhabits a character this well.
Of course, matching such a magnetic display is no mean feat, especially given that you could count the principal cast members of Up In The Air on one hand with digits to spare. Kendrick is excellent as Natalie, clearly wanting to impress Clooney’s Bingham while also loathing some of his more egotistical aspects. Fiercely intelligent, driven – though prone to occasional emotional meltdown – she gives the impression that she’s more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Bingham.
Farmiga’s Alex is equally up to the task, filling the gaps in Ryan’s life with a wry wit and some brilliant one-liners: “Just think of me as you, but, with a vagina” is surely the standout. Farmiga is warm, caring and absolutely gorgeous, so not only does she provide a believable and convincing foil to Clooney, she teams up with him to make for one of the most incredibly attractive screen couples in recent memory.
These three central turns – all Oscar-nominated it should be noted – are nothing short of marvellous, and carry at least three-quarters of the movie alone. There is some stellar support too, though in largely glorified cameos: Danny McBride’s nervous groom-to-be, Zach Galifinakis and the ever-amazing J.K. Simmons’ fired employees providing the standouts.
Although the film’s final act features the dreaded airport run (impossible to un-cliché) and an ill-fitting montage of real unemployed people lauding the virtues of families, as if to provide a disclaimer to all that has run before, nothing can spoil the joys of Up In The Air. Clooney, Farmiga and Kendrick form one of the best central triumvirates of the last five years, the script fizzes with creativity, and Reitman’s direction is understated but beautiful. Joyous.
Verdict: A film whose virtues only become more apparent with repeat viewings, Up In The Air is not only a worryingly fitting testament to 21st-century business, but a showcase for a trio of marvellous actors and one of the finest young directors working today.