There is a great lyric from a Nirvana song that goes, "I miss the comfort in being sad." When Kurt Cobain sang it, it was from the point of view of an overly medicated, overly famous musician whose very success had deprived him of the privacy of his own depression. It's a line that I've always liked, and I've applied it to many things in the past. It's also one that came back to me at the end of Up in the Air, the new film by Jason Reitman. It's a movie that ends with a sense of resignation and acceptance. Sadness has been revealed as the norm, and now that it's exposed, it's hard to return to.
Up in the Air stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a professional job terminator. When a CEO doesn't have the cajones to get rid of employees himself, Ryan flies in to break the news. In these bad economic times, Ryan's business is booming, and he criss-crosses the country leaving men and women unemployed wherever he goes. In between firings, Ryan also gives motivational seminars called "What's in Your Backpack?" The gyst of his philosophy is that there should be nothing in there you can't comfortably carry. Don't let yourself be tied down by anyone or anything. Be like Ryan, always on the move, airports and hotels more your home than your one-room apartment in Omaha.
Ryan is very good at his job. He has learned of the unpredictability of human emotion in times of stress, and he's able to roll with it. Ryan can traverse just about any travel obstacle, knowing the ins and outs of ticket counters, car rental agencies, and hotel amenities. He is bucking for the rare honor of 10,000,000 frequent flyer miles. His sister (Melanie Lynskey) is getting married, and he couldn't care one bit. His most valued human connection is with Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow traveler with whom he can hook up whenever their flight paths cross. For all of his solitude and the harsh reality of his career, Ryan is actually a pretty good guy who is compassionate to the human condition. He knows what he does is personal.
Technology isn't, however, and when Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, who plays Jessica in the Twilight movies), a hotshot college grad, develops a plan to do Ryan's job by video conferencing, he is against it. It won't work, the terminated need to see their terminator face to face. Also, it would take Ryan off the road, and so to show Natalie how wrong she is, he takes her out in the field with him. They bond, they discuss his life philosophy, and eventually, Ryan begins to wonder what he is doing with his life. Should he go to his sister's wedding? Should he take Alex?
Jason Reitman has been on a winning streak. Coming off Thank You For Smoking and Juno, he continues to impress with Up in the Air. Based on a novel by Walter Kirn (Thumbsucker) and co-written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner (The Longest Yard), Up in the Air is that rare movie animal: an unclassifiable story about people. It's got equal parts comedy and tragedy, romance and heartbreak, exterior action and interior inaction. Some of the marketing would have you believe the film is the feel-good picture of the season, a rom-com about a guy who just needs the right woman to get his act together. Don't you believe it. Up in the Air has so much more going on than that. Injected with Reitman's sense of visual play and dragged along on Clooney's hangdog charisma, it's a film where redemption, like revenge, is a dish best served cold.
Natalie's sudden appearance in Ryan's life is the beginning of the end for his way of being. Everywhere he turns, there are signs of the world moving past him, of a reorganization of priorities, and of his own confused code. Why does he care more about the people whose lives he is helping destroy than his own family or even himself? Reitman shows us the pain he is causing, mixing recognizable character actors like J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis in with the real-life unemployed, people who answered an open casting call to play Ryan's victims. When we see Ryan at his best, he redirects the anguish into a positive, giving those who are let go a reason to hang on. When his future brother-in-law (a subdued Danny McBride) gets cold feet, they send Ryan in to warm them up. He essentially sells the groom the exact lifestyle he's spent so long avoiding.
Clooney is one of my favorite actors. His movie-star appeal has long been praised, and a big part of that appeal is his ability to tweak the Clooney brand while also staying within it. As the actor grows older, he's not afraid to poke fun at his own age, accepting the leading man roles with a self-deprecating humor straight out of the Cary Grant playbook. The funniest people are the ones who aren't afraid to have the joke be on them, and they are also the most empathetic. I think the only people more upset than Ryan about how things are turning out for him is the audience. We want the whole George Clooney thing to pay off. If we can't believe in that, what can we believe in? He may be a rake, but he's our rake.
It's amazing, then, to watch Clooney build Ryan into this confident automaton and then slowly remove the pieces. The actor, alongside his director, subtly shifts the character piece by piece. Reitman has a similar way with the story. He moves this road-trip satire from it's many laugh-out-loud moments (prepare to laugh a lot) into romantic territory so seamlessly, he's tugging on our emotions and challenging our perceptions before we even know we're in the thick of love. It's also not the last move they'll make, but each change-up comes with the same ease. Imagine this as the vehicle Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart never made. Up in the Air could tumble ass-backwards into the biggest bucket of clichés and no one would care. It's that good at what it does.
Luckily, the clichés have all been left on the cutting room floor, meaning there are surprises in store for those willing to go the whole way with Up in the Air. They aren't the surprises everyone will want, and I think it would be easy and even simpleminded to misjudge the ending of this movie as dark or depressing. I see it as hopeful. Ryan Bingham is finally faced with the opportunity he has been telling the men and women he has fired they have had. He has been selling them on the idea that they have a clean break, that the entire world is open to them, they can go anywhere and do anything. As he stands in front of that flight board, his backpack isn't entirely empty, he now has things he cares about, but he's free to run after his heart's desire. It's just a matter of figuring out what that is, choosing his destination, and booking the flight.