Up in the Air
By Carl Kozlowski
December 22, 2009
All your life, you’ve heard about the American Dream: find a wife or husband, pop out some kids, buy a house with a white picket fence and live happily ever after in the cozy embrace of suburbia. But what if that cozy embrace wasn’t there anymore? Take a look around you at the news and official statistics, and it’s clear that America and its attendant “Dream” is in a heap of trouble. What if you did all that hard work, only to see it swept away by a devastating layoff? How would you handle it?
In his new film Up in the Air, George Clooney delivers perhaps the most well-rounded performance of his career while finding rays of hope and humor in the economic darkness of our present times. As Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizing specialist, he flies around the country helping administer mass layoffs for companies too scared to handle such situations themselves.
Ryan has the patter of a concerned friend down to a T, calmly guiding people through the devastating moments of hearing they’ve lost their job by discussing their severance packages, giving them a pep talk and then providing them their final proverbial shove out the door with a kind smile and perhaps a pat on the back thrown in for effect. But his own personal life is nearly bereft of such touches, or connections of any kind—he’s "up in the air" over 300 days a year and wishes he could make it 365. If a woman’s around to seduce from time to time, Ryan will engage in some meaningless sex and move on.
Then suddenly, Ryan finds himself surrounded by two women who won’t conveniently fade away—one, Natalie, played by Anna Kendrick (Twilight) is a 23-year-old go-getter who wants the company to fire people via teleconferencing, which would make Ryan a dinosaur. So he convinces their boss Craig (Jason Bateman) to let him take Natalie on the road and show her just how psychologically complex and morally necessary his hands-on approach is to maintaining people’s sanity.
At the same time, Ryan is getting hands-on experience after-hours with Alex (Vera Farmiga), a woman whom he first connects with as a one-night stand but then feels strangely drawn to maintaining contact with her. Alex seems to be his perfect match: tough-minded, independent, fast-moving and always on the go—in fact, she makes it perfectly clear from day one that she’s fine with just a casual relationship.
But as the pair keeps crossing paths, and Ryan deals with his growing attachment to Alex and his fatherly concern for Anna over her relationship troubles, he wonders for the first time if maybe the grass is greener on the other side. Should he lay himself out emotionally as well as physically, and finally find the gumption to take the plunge into human connection? Or should he keep on flying into the anonymity of the skies, remaining an island unto himself?
Up in the Air presents some of life’s most pressing, everyday questions as a middle-aged man’s finally-coming-of-age story. As co-scripted (with Sheldon Turner) and directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno), the film expands upon Walter Kirn’s source novel in brilliant fashion: while the novel is focused on the entire world through Ryan’s eyes, Reitman invented the two female lead characters from scratch and guided them to powerhouse performances as the flip sides of each other’s life experience and personalities—Natalie is a younger Alex, and if she doesn’t watch out, Alex is Natalie in 20 years.
Reitman also fills the screen with a surreal sense of dislocation. Ryan travels constantly, but rarely actually goes anywhere. For him, life is a blur of airplanes, airports and luxury hotels; only when his sister asks him to photograph some of the landmarks of his travel destinations as a wedding gift does he finally open his eyes and actually see the sights, colors and humanity around him. In the film’s most beautiful and affecting segment, Ryan takes Alex back to his long-forgotten hometown with him for the wedding, and the duo’s chemistry as two seemingly lost souls finally found warms the screen.
And yet, there remains an underlying sadness throughout. Just because you might want to change your life doesn’t mean that God, fate or the universe will let you. But in making viewers care deeply about the characters and their interactions, Up in the Air helps illuminate which direction each of our lives is going in, and how our choices and patterns affect our final destinations.
Check out our Q&A with the stars and director of the film.