Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air—currently the smart-money bet for a Best Picture Oscar—is marketed as a comedy, which I guess is fair. It could be called—and has been—an existential comedy, though that term is so closely associated with David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (2004) that I hesitate to adopt it because the two films aren’t very alike. It’s far safer, I think, to call the film a drama with brilliantly barbed dialogue, flights of absurdity and moments of bitter comedy—but that doesn’t fit into a nice little category.
George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man whose job is to travel around the country for the express purpose of coming into large companies and firing people. The job seems to cause him no qualms, despite its cold nature and potential pitfalls. (The latter are deftly illustrated in several amusing and wrenching scenarios involving firing Zach Galifianakis’ character.) The reason is simple: It’s a job that allows him to live as many days out of the year on planes or in hotels as possible, and that allows him to be totally devoid of any ties or commitments. He’s even a stranger to his family, though he does find himself in the embarrassing position of having to photograph a cardboard cutout of his sister (Melanie Lynskey, The Informant!) and her fiancé (Danny McBride) at various picturesque spots as a kind of wedding gift. The man’s big goal in life is to amass $10 million in flight miles and gain recognition of the achievement from the airline. I’m not sure anyone has had a shallower life goal.
All this comes to an apparent halt when a young hotshot, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, The Twilight Saga: New Moon), sells her boss (a spectacularly smarmy Jason Bateman) on firing people via Internet connections on computer monitors, thereby effectively grounding Bingham in Omaha, Neb. But he gets one last round of “personal firings”—taking Natalie with him so she can better understand the whole procedure. This trip and Ryan’s “no strings” sexual relationship with fellow frequent flyer Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) make up the bulk of the movie. In some ways, the arc of the story is fairly predictable, but in most respects, it plays against expectations.
Much of the satire is grounded in the idea of people getting something like the “reward” they deserve, as when Natalie, author of the impersonal firing program, finds her boyfriend dumping her via text message. This also—like the firing procedure—is a shrewd comment on the impersonal nature of so much of our communication, which has turned us into beings as isolated as Bingham without our realizing it. Some scenes are even touching—as in the sequence where Bingham fires J.K. Simmons’ character—and suggest that there is at least some degree of caring behind Bingham’s glib firing spiel.
It’s clearly a film that reflects the uneasy times we live in, but Up in the Air isn’t interested in being preachy. It’s interested in delving into its characters. The actors are almost unbelievably good. Vera Farmiga seems like an almost sure bet for a supporting actress award. However, at the center of it all, is George Clooney in the role he seems born to have played—a role he’s lived himself into. His skills as a subtle actor of greater nuance than is often thought carry him all the way. He’s nothing short of brilliant here—and the film is at least close to his level. Rated R for language and some sexual content.