Ryan Bingham (George Clooney, Intolerable Cruelty) is a professional hatchet man. He works for a company that performs the unpleasant task of letting employees go for employers unwilling to do it themselves. Bingham is a consummate professional whose complete disconnect from those around him and love of the road is so all-consuming that he gives lectures advocating following his example and leaving it all behind. The film brings us Ryan at a moment in which his smug world view is challenged by not one but two women.
The first, Alex (Vera Farmiga, The Departed), appears to be his female counterpart, a fellow expert traveler who gets turned on by discussions of perks cards. Alex could be the only woman who has ever tempted Bingham to settle down. The other woman is Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a fresh new employee with Bingham’s company who comes up with a scheme to ditch in-person firings for even more impersonal Skype firings, destroying the job that provides the means for Ryan’s lifestyle. The company’s CEO Craig (Jason Bateman, Extract) is completely sold on Natalie’s plan as it will greatly reduce costs, but Ryan manages to convince Craig to let him take Natalie on the road to show her the ropes. It seems clear that Craig just wants Natalie to get information that will help her set up the new system, while Ryan hopes that he can somehow stop the coming change.
Up in the Air is one of those films that get nominated for a list of Oscars-Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, and 2 Best Supporting Actress nominations-but will most certainly be forgotten ten or twenty years down the road. This is not to say that Up in the Air isn’t a great looking film-the opening montage of Ryan expertly navigating the airport, for example, is efficient and beautiful to watch, and almost (almost) makes the idea of business air travel seem as romantic as those wonderful advertisements and films from the dawn of the jet age. The performances are good, especially Kendrick, who holds her own against Clooney, and definitely deserved her nomination. Clooney is always a smooth/smarm machine (varying as the role requires it) but his performance, shows us nothing particularly new and is hollow. Farmiga’s “sexy” act falls somewhat flat, but it appears to be as shallow, empty, and calculated as Clooney’s and later developments make her nomination one of the rare Oscar Best Actress/Supporting Actress nominations for a woman who is not a straightforward whore, martyr or saint. There is also a solid supporting cast, including Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) and J.K. Simmons (Jennifer’s Body) as employees who get let go, Melanie Lynskey (The Informant!) as Ryan’s sister, Danny McBride (Land of the Lost) as Ryan’s prospective brother-in-law, and Sam Eliot (Frogs). Still the film’s plot needs a little work
SOME SPOILER SPACE IS NEEDED
Up in the Air works its tail off to get Ryan to a typical Hollywood epiphany, then has it turn out that what he thought would save him won’t. Perhaps this is meant as black comedy, or darker drama, but then the film ends with the status quo mostly restored. The “guy abandons a major thing for the girl of his dream” scene is used, then it doesn’t work out. So is this his comeuppance? Is his redemption that Natalie, at least, is out doing something she loves and leaves his soul-killing job that he is uniquely suited for? Then why take his enjoyment away from him? Is the little gesture of him trying to give his airline miles to his big dreamer sister his redemption? Why have a redemption at all?
Up in the Air is a well made, and well acted film that doesn’t want to be a cookie cutter Hollywood drama/romance, but doesn’t want to commit to the ideas it brings up, either. Thank You For Smoking, also by director Jason Reitman, almost suffers from the same problem (and is equally soulless and calculated to make you root for the “anti-hero” whose smoothness is supposed to make up for their essentially immoral job), but at least it sticks to its black comedy guns. Up in the Air can’t decide where to land, so instead it leaves Ryan stuck in a holding pattern, and denying the audience any resolution.