Last year, Ryan Bingham spent 322 days on the road, "which means I had to spend 43 miserable days at home." Most of his travel is for work; in a miserable economic climate, his is one of the few booming businesses. He goes in to companies with massive layoffs, and fires the employees of bosses who are too spineless to do the job themselves. He provides a face for their bleak future, and hands them packets full of vagaries about their "options." When he's done doing that, he packs up his carry-on bag and hops onto another flight to fire more people somewhere else. Occasionally, he'll pick up a gig as motivational speaker for the new millennium; the gist of his message is that possessions and relationships weigh us down, so to get ahead, you must do without them.
It pretty much goes without saying that, if there is a story to be told about someone like Ryan, it is that he must come to question the logical but empty assumptions by which he lives his life. Up in the Air does that, but not in the way that you might expect. It is too smart for easy answers. It is also too skillful to let you see exactly what it's up to.
The picture is directed by Jason Reitman, who has put together a three-film body of work that rivals Quentin Tarantino's or Paul Thomas Anderson's at that point in their careers. His first film was the fast, funny, take-no-prisoners corporate satire Thank You For Smoking; his second, Juno, was a heartfelt movie about strong, flawed, likable people. He famously put this passion project (which, like Smoking, he co-wrote from a novel) on hold because he was so taken by Diablo Cody's Juno screenplay, and it's for the best that he did. Here, he combines the best elements of both films, and comes up with his most impressive work to date.
Bingham is played by George Clooney, in a marriage of performer and role that is so spot-on, it's impossible to imagine any other actor playing it. As with his previous career-best turn, in Michael Clayton, he is playing a seemingly smooth operator who is perhaps no quite as together as he seems. Clooney is carving out a niche in a very specific kind of role (in many ways, Danny Ocean and Jack Foley in Out of Sight aren't too far removed from this orbit); like the movie stars of yore he's so frequently compared to (Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart), he has a certain kind of role that he does very well without ever seeming to repeat himself. There is also, without question, a kind of voyeuristic quality to watching him play this character, who holds forth on his disinterest in marriage and family life quite convincingly, since we've seen and read interviews in which the actor professes many of the same views.
Up in the Air is about how that man's views are shifted by the arrival of two women into his life. He meets Alex (Vera Fermiga) during one of those late, lonely nights in a smoky hotel bar; she is a fellow traveler, one of the few people on earth who can appreciate his impressive array of members club cards and his spectacularly high frequent-flyer miles. They have a good time comparing status and having free-wheeling sex, and try to intersect on the road whenever possible, but that's it; she directs him to "think of me as you with a vagina."
The other is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young up-and-comer in Ryan's company who is trying to make a name for herself by shaking up they way they do business. Specifically, she proposes that they cut down and travel time and expense by doing their dirty job over webcams--a proposal that Ryan immediately, instinctively resists, for reasons both moral (their job requires a human face, and not one on a computer screen) and self-serving (he doesn't have much of a home life, plus he's really close to hitting ten million miles). He's not one to change his entire life because a hot new Cornell grad thinks they should get web-centric. His boss (the invaluable Jason Bateman) suggests that Ryan takes Natalie on the road and shows her the ropes.
That scene, in which the three sharp, fast-talking actors engage in a tough round of rat-tat-tat one-upsmanship, is a highlight. But the picture's finest scene comes much later, as Clooney, Kendrick, and Fermiga share a drink and let their guards down, just a bit. Watching that scene, we can take ourselves out and reflect that all three are characters that could be written and played as stock types--the footloose professional who can't commit, the tough gal with the atypical preferences of sex and relationships, the young hotshot who's more fragile than she seems. But all three are such specific, well-defined personalities, so richly invested with warmth and humanity by the skilled actors playing them, that we're genuinely involved with them.
The film's timing is impeccable; no movie this year (save, perhaps, for Capitalism: A Love Story) more accurately reflects the general malaise and anxiety that has infected our feelings about how and where we work. Reitman masterfully uses a mix of actors and real, recently-unemployed workers for the scenes of dismissals; their genuine pain and heartache lends the film a documentary realism, and immediacy. The film has real weight, and is better for it.
Make no mistake, though, Up in the Air is not a depressing mediation on our fallen economy. It is an irresistibly smart, laugh-out-loud funny picture, marvelously constructed and snappily edited, and there's not a bad performance anywhere in it--Kendrick (who came onto my radar with her fierce turn in Rocket Science) is phenomenal, Fermiga is wonderfully efficient, and Clooney has never been better. Several other actors of note (J.K. Simmons, Sam Elliot, Zach Galifianakis, Danny McBride) are used sparingly but effectively; Amy Morton and Melanie Lynskey, as Ryan's neglected sisters, say more in the way they look at him (and each other) than they could have with reams of dialogue.
Up in the Air, which is the best film I've yet seen this year, is something of a miracle, really. When we reflect on the "golden age" of 1970s filmmaking, we're often talking about pictures like The Godfather and Chinatown and Cukoo's Nest and The French Connection--well-financed studio films with movie stars that made money, but were also geared towards adult audiences and were as enthusiastically received by critics as they were by audiences. Up in the Air feels like a throwback to that era, which is quite an accomplishment in a year where Hollywood's highest-grossing film is a sequel to a movie based on 1980s cartoon that was a commercial for toys. This is a film for grown-ups, made by grown-ups. I hope, for all of our sake, that there's still an audience for that kind of thing.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.