Up in the Air
Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
Hollywood has no modesty. Since Tinseltown’s earliest incarnations, the illustrious directors and actors that have graced the big screen have attacked their tasks with a ferocious desire for distinction. As such, our cinemas are saturated with brainchildren of Michael Bays and James Camerons, waving their hands feverishly about, spittle flying across the room, conjuring up massive explosions and lush CGI landscapes. And why not? We watch movies to escape our dreary realities, to fall into a more captivating world. But once in a while, Hollywood will surprise us with a film that is deceptively modest, and we marvel at its unique beauty.
Up in the Air starts off with a relatively worn recipe — take a charming, handsome protagonist and place him in a morally questionable career. Make him very, very good at it. If you’ve seen Thank You for Smoking, (incidentally by the same director, Jason Reitman) you’ll know what I’m talking about. But while Aaron Eckhart can make you hate to love him, Clooney’s unparalleled panache quells any such reservations. He is, without a question, what every man aspires to be, but can never match. As Ryan Bingham, a “Termination Facilitator,” he needs every ounce of Clooney-charm to confront the men and women of the American workforce that he fires — for a living. His home is the airport, his pleasure, the plane. To him they symbolize personal freedom with no strings attached, collecting only frequent flyer miles and not emotional baggage. But when bright-eyed Cornell grad Natalie (she could easily have been a Sloan alum) threatens to ruin his way of life with the advent of computerized layoffs (read: Skype), Clooney takes her under his wing to show her the subtlety and dignity behind delivering the words, “Unfortunately there is no longer an available position for you at this company.”
This is when the movie comes onto its own. It makes no effort to draw out the extraordinary, or deliver the unexpected. It simply places a few elegantly charming, yet flawed characters together, shakes well, and waits. What grows is a blooming story ripe with the sweetest moments, most bitter of realizations, and an honest poignancy that catapults the film far above those that try to slide by with manipulative soundtracks and onion tears.
There is a particularly touching scene in which Ryan and Natalie check into a hotel, during which Natalie argues fiercely with Ryan about the merits of marriage and stable relationships, which the latter parries nonchalantly. After all, how many people do you know in a stable marriage? During a silence, Natalie simply bursts into tears. “Brian left me!” she reveals, attracting the whole lobby’s attention. Ryan is clearly uncomfortable, but does his best to console her. Just then, Alex, the woman Ryan had met just weeks before approaches, with Natalie still sobbing like a baby in Ryan’s arms.
At Alex’s suggestion, they sit down for drinks. Natalie talks about her aspirations, her mistakes, her future. She lets slip a faux pas about Ryan and Alex’s age. The look that Ryan and Alex give her could melt the steeliest heart; it is one of blasé, maternal understanding, of I’ve-been-there and you’ll-learn-when-you’re-older. Natalie asks Alex about her requirements in a man. Alex replies, with a hint of disillusionment, “Honestly, by the time you’re 34, all the physical requirements go out the window…” Her list is prudent. Nice guy, great with kids, fit enough to take care of the family. You can picture your own mother giving the same speech. “Oh, and a nice smile. That just might do it.” Alex concludes.
The scene is painfully genuine. As so with the rest of the film, which deals with commitment, friendship, unemployment, ambition, grief, love, and heartbreak. It handles these topics with a mature respect. Reitman even asked real people who had been recently laid off to come and discuss their feelings on camera. Their performances shine, because they are real. As in life, Up In The Air has no satisfying conclusion, and answers no questions. As in life, some problems have been solved, but many others remain. As in life, the future is uncertain: This is the truth, and let it be known that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but more powerful than it as well.