Up in the Air screenwriter/director Jason Reitman presents us with yet another anti-hero in Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a man who travels 322 days a year, being lent out "to cowards who don’t have the courage to sack their own employees," and spends “the other 43 in misery at home.” Reitman tries to paint Ryan as a sad figure, but it's hard to feel sorry for a guy who enjoys eight out of every nine days.
We are supposed to bristle at Ryan’s profession and world view. It would seem easy to despise a man who makes his living firing people, but Ryan is only a symptom of a third party’s failures. His job isn’t nearly as loathsome as the one Clooney’s character performed in Michael Clayton, helping people and corporations twist free from the legal or moral consequences of their actions, or that of tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor in Reitman’s first film, Thank You for Smoking. Both those anti-heroes had children, ex-wives, financial issues; lives that made them inspire a greater emotional response – pro or con. Ryan's is a zero-sum experience. It's hard to feel strongly about him.
Much has been made during the press for Up in the Air about Reitman’s love of travel, but that passion does this film no favors. Ryan in transit, meticulously packing and gliding through airport check-in and security, is shot too lovingly.
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"All the things that you probably hate about flying … are warm reminders that I am home," says Ryan in narrating his own airport ballet.
This isn’t a man ignorant of misery. It's a man in all his glory.
Compounding Ryan’s otherness is his belief that "relationships are the heaviest components in your life,” a creed he espouses on the motivational speaking circuit, in his presentation, "What's in Your Backpack?" Ryan encourages people to divest themselves of everything – even other people. Yet we’re never presented with any sort of back-story for Ryan’s self-imposed exile – no soured romance, no alcoholic father, no tragic death. If there were some indication that he was hiding from some past personal pain, he would be a character we could maybe root for or condemn as an emotional coward. Instead, he’s just a weirdo who’s made some choices we can’t identify with. But he’s happy. It’s only when he’s told that he can’t possibly be happy that things go awry for him.
The performances throughout are all rock solid. Clooney is Clooney: handsome, charming, likable, though the Oscar buzz surrounding his performance is a bit much. Anna Kendrick, as the young upstart who threatens Ryan with a taste of his own downsizing medicine, continues the type of fine work that caught Reitman's eye in Rocket Science. Vera Farmiga as Alex Goran, a fellow professional nomad, is sexy, fun and no-nonsense, the perfect doppelganger for Clooney. Zack Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons also give typically excellent, if too-short, performances in cameos. Perhaps the most effecting work is done by people reacting to the news of their firing at Ryan’s hand. Reitman recruited them in St. Louis and Detroit by placing an ad seeking recently laid-off people for a documentary. Their raw emotion brings a gravitas to the movie that is mostly lacking.
It's a pleasant, breezy film, which at times is genuinely funny, but it’s not funny enough or often enough.
As usual, Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno) keeps the pace brisk, the dialogue crisp and smart. But the pitch is inconsistent and he loses his grip on the narrative towards the end. As the film winds down – making some gratuitous plot twists along the way – we learn that Alex is exactly who she claimed to be, while Ryan finds that after a brush with the human race, he just wants to return to the air. We spend 109 minutes at cruising altitude only to end up back where we started, making for an unsatisfying trip.
"Up in the Air" opens in limited release Friday in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Philadelphia