Up in the Air (adapted from the novel by Walter Kirn) focuses on Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney), a man who travels for business for more than ¾ of the year and is most at home when he is flying. The mundanity and stress of air travel doesn’t get to Ryan Bingham. Due to the fact that he has nearly every loyalty perk available at the Hilton, Hertz, and American Airlines, traveling to him is a delight, where he is constantly greeted by name and shown the best of treatment. He makes single-serving friends on flights, seamlessly crashes other people’s parties at hotel conference suites and moves through the world with great efficiency, completely unfettered by attachments or permanency. He is developing a reputation as a motivational speaker with his program “What’s in your backpack?,” which teaches that material possessions are just ballast, and that the emotional connections with people are just another kind of ballast, tying us down in one place and grounding us with emotional inertia.
That is, until two women come into his life and provoke him to question his way in life. The first, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) is a fellow unfettered traveler. They flirt by arguing the relative merits of various car rental companies, boast about their elite statuses and frequent flier miles. They tumble into bed before both flying off their separate ways in the morning, making plans to meet again with the same pragmatic efficiency that dominates their business life. The other woman who upsets Ryan’s status quo is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young Cornell grad who is a new hire for Ryan’s firm, promising to revolutionize the business. Ryan’s constant travel is in service of a company that is hired to downsize employees and offer assistance in career transition. What this really means is that Ryan comes in to fire people so that cowardly or compassionate bosses don’t have to do it. Ryan Bingham (and the people at his company) are the psychopomps of late capitalist downsizing, acting as 21st century Hermes to the souls of the recently terminated. In an economy tearing itself to shreds following the crash of 08, Ryan’s company is up while the rest of the country and much of the world is down.
In one of several powerful moves, writer-director Jason Reitman (of Juno and Thank You For Smoking) uses non-actors in the roles of most of the downsized employees. He brings in real people who have faced losing their jobs and captures their reactions, their emotions, their heartfelt pleas and desperate stories, stories that resonate with great strength. Most everyone in the USA knows someone who has lost their job when they couldn’t afford it, and this helps make the film almost painfully timely. Production on Up in the Air began before the wall street and housing crash, before the unemployment rate climbed above 10%, but because of that timing, Up in the Air has become one of the touchstone films for the contemporary US job climate.
Natalie comes in to CTC (Bingham’s company) with a Glocalization approach – make the global local. She puts forward a system where instead of flying “transition specialists” like Ryan from city to city to personally oversee the downsizing, the company can perform their duties via web-conferencing from their home office in Omaha. This threatens to destroy Ryan’s frequent-flier-mile-chasing, rollerback suitcase lifestyle. Ryan objects, and is tasked with showing Natalie the ropes. He provides prejudiced but effective advice on efficiency in travel, as well as sharing his love of flying. He teaches her how travel has a way of making all places one place. Kendrick’s Natalie is a very contained, restrained, buttoned up young professional woman, a woman that wants career mobility but also the comforts of a traditional family life with an ideal husband whose qualities she enumerates with the matter-of-factness of a technician naming off features in a designer computer. She contains emotion well, which makes it all the more striking when her Cornell-taught professional walls come crashing down.
Much of the film rides on the back of the three leads. Clooney and Farmiga find a comfortable intimacy for their characters as two people used to being alone in a crowd find themselves becoming a team and falling in love. Keener’s Natalie comes to be a surrogate daughter to Ryan, as she challenges his worldview while learning from it and coming to see that the world does not care for her five, ten, and fifteen year bullet-point life plans. Vera Farmiga is effortlessly sexy as Ryan’s match and opposite. One of Alex’s best lines, to Ryan, asks him to think of her as him, but with a vagina. Farmiga effortlessly oozes sensuality and maturity, in contrast with her junior co-star Keener (though as Retiman says in the commentary, they are playing the same woman at two points in her life, 23 and 38-ish). Clooney is of course the central figure, as we begin and end with his story. Clooney’s signature charm serves very well in making Ryan Bingham a likable character instead of an insufferable entitled hermit. Ryan is believable as the right man to help people through what for many is one of the worst days of their lives.
As a “transition specialist,” Ryan is an artist, rolling with people’s various reactions to getting fired sometimes with strength as needed, sometimes with compassion and encouragement. He is not their friend, he is not their enemy. He is their guide in the journey from their old job to their new life. Much as the people at Hilton, Hertz and American Airlines make Ryan’s journey smooth, he works to make the journey of the recently-terminated a bit more tolerable.
The film maintains tone well, has a strong style and point-of-view showing the world of travel through Ryan’s eyes at first and then letting realism creep in as Ryan comes to depend on people more and make himself vulnerable. The ending is a calculated question that each viewer must answer to themselves. It is a film that is easily read as provoking thoughts in the viewer such as “what is important in my life?
Extra features include a commentary with Director/Writer Reitman as well as Director of Photography Eric Steelberg and First Assistant Director Jason Blumfeld. They discuss the casting, the actor’s performances, the pressures of their multi-location set, as well as editing and lighting and other appropriate matters for crew-end commentary. The commentary is insightful, but not particularly remarkable as film commentaries go, with most material coming from Reitman himself, talking about his previous films and how they helped lead into Up in the Air. In addition, there is a featurette about Shadowplay, the company which did the opening credits sequence for this and Reitman’s other two films, as well as deleted scenes and trailers.
One of the sequences in the deleted scenes shows Ryan buying a condo in Omaha (instead of a rented one-bedroom) and nesting there, making a home for himself where previously, home had been the sky and the apartment was just the layover spot between trips. It shows Ryan putting down roots and putting effort into a localized life – he goes running in the neighborhood instead of on a treadmill, shops for groceries, and tastes the life that he had shunned before. I believe that this sequence’s omission in the film does the theatrical release a disservice, even though I understand Reitman’s commentary about why it was cut (he wanted to minimize the delay between two critical scenes, with Ryan & Alex at the wedding and then in Chicago). However, as is, the ending of the film felt incomplete to me in a way that proved disappointing. Ryan’s arc at the end of the film felt more complete when I mentally integrated the Omaha sequence into the film.
On the personal level, this film resonated with me a lot. I mean a lot a lot. I work as a traveling salesman, so I do a fair amount of flying, and a great deal of driving for work and staying in identical hotel rooms far away from the woman I love and my friends back home. In Ryan I can see the elite status fliers that I see pass me in line, I see reflections of my boss and my boss’s boss, men who travel for a living, and have spent many years growing expert and comfortable with living out of suitcases and garment bags. The isolation that the film clearly shows (first as irrelevant to Ryan, then deeply felt as the film goes on) is very real to me and I imagine to anyone who has to spend a reasonable or unreasonable number of nights each year away from home, sleeping in a foreign bed in a place that is not “home.” Bingham has a good lesson to teach in the way he makes all places one place, collapsing the world into a string of experiences and moving confidently through the world of travel.
At the end of the day, I have to agree with what he says towards the end of the movie. “If you think about it. Your favorite memories, the most important moments in your life. Were you alone?…Life’s better with company. Everybody needs a co-pilot.”
Up in the Air is a brilliantly acted, stylish film that is highly topical and timely, emotionally resonant, and critically adored (with Golden Globe, Screen Actors’ Guild and Academy Award nominations among others). It’s a good view for fans of subtle comedy, mature romance, and anyone who’s ever been fired, had to fire someone, or spent too many hours on flights, in airports, and away from the ones they love.