George Clooney plays Ryan, a man who spends over 320 days a year flying across the country, firing employees for employers who are too timid to do it themselves. And in this horrible economy, Ryan’s business is booming. He does his best to put a human face on his dirty job – treating the employees he fires like people instead of casualties on a stat sheet. And the only thing Ryan loves more than his job is the traveling that his job allows him to do. As Ryan puts it himself, he loves the recycled air and impersonal treatment; he revels in bypassing long lines, swiping his courtesy cards and every dehumanizing aspect of travel. The “road” is “home” for Ryan, who would rather be anywhere else than his actual home base, a soulless motel room in Omaha, Neb., that is almost literally empty. Ryan travels light, both literally and figuratively: He doesn’t weigh himself down with checked luggage or baggage of the human kind. He has a wheeled carry-on and relationships with no strings attached.
Ryan’s routine is disrupted by two women: Alex (Vera Farmiga), a sort of female version of himself, and Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a rising star at his employment-consultant firm who might have been him years ago and has a few ideas that could mean firing some of the guys who make their living firing people. Both of these women force Ryan – the rambling man – to contemplate where he’s been… and where he’s going (if anywhere).
Clooney is able to make Ryan, this Destroyer of Worlds if you will, a very likeable guy. You would probably have a beer with him – if you were still able to afford beer after he fired your ass. (Wait, he’s under strict orders not say “fired.”) It’s hard to imagine more perfect casting. The entire movie hinges on sympathizing with a man who ruins people’s lives while resolutely refusing to truly live one of his own, and Clooney pulls it off with aplomb. As a confirmed bachelor, Ryan mirrors Clooney’s real-life commitment to being non-committal, so there’s truth behind his eyes when he assures a groom-to-be, “I’m good.” Because he is. Farmiga (The Departed) is not only beautiful, she has the gravitas to hold the screen with Clooney without being mere eye candy. The scene in which Ryan and Alex compare hotel and airline loyalty cards is a pissing match in which she proves to be Ryan’s equal. And Farmiga is likewise a match for Clooney. Kendrick’s Natalie is a prime example of the hungry young up-and-comer who isn’t out to replace Ryan so much as render him irrelevant. Only he doesn’t get a kindly chat from a sympathetic face. He gets a PowerPoint presentation that leaves him with that empty feeling.
The bright-eyed Natalie is long on book-learning and theory, but short on experience facing the sad eyes of actual people (real laid-off workers were brought in as extras). She says, “Your position is no longer available,” as if the person’s job was some kind of special offer or opportunity. I know a lot of employers who act they are doing their employees a favor by allowing them to remain employed. And who knows, maybe those of us who still hold jobs in this economy are merely lucky. Surely there are hordes of younger people willing to do the same job for less money; and a mob behind them eager to perform the same work for even less dough. Where is the bottom? Is there still a bottom?
Director Jason Reitman (Juno) doesn’t shy away from raising such questions – but he doesn’t really answer them, either. I like to think of him as the master of the wry film; Thank You for Smoking was a terrific black comedy with a peculiarly adult sense of humor. Here, Reitman makes judicious use of shakycam and zoom, two techniques that lend an indie or even documentary flavor. The good news is he never strays into the goofy territory staked out by THE OFFICE; this is never in danger of becoming a mockumentary. Reitman is trying to capture the major trauma of losing a job. Or, in contrast, the happy weight of a wedding. In fact, he shoots the wedding sequences like a home video: the tops of heads are cut off; the camera’s eye wanders and zooms before focusing on its subjects. It feels like we’re peering into private lives.
And Up in the Air just… it feels like a best picture winner. It has that ineffable something; it has heft, it has weight and substance. It’s well-acted, sharply written and it looks great without being distracting. (Winking at you, Avatar…)
Unlike Ryan Bingham, my feelings about this movie are most definitely not up in the air. I loved this film. And, if nothing else, Up in the Air proves that George Clooney will always have a job.