Here are a few of the kinds of movies that I wish Hollywood made more often (like, you know, two or three times a year): a drama that connects to an audience because it taps, in a bold and immediate way, into the fears and anxieties of our time; a romantic comedy in which the dialogue pings with stylish wit and verve; a film that keeps surprising us because its characters keep surprising themselves. The beauty of Up in the Air is that it’s all those things at once. Adapted from Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel, it’s a rare and sparkling gem of a movie, directed by Jason Reitman (Juno) with the polish of a master.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), the film’s debonair hero, is a new kind of no-sweat corporate executioner. Each day, he walks into a different office somewhere in the United States — Wichita, Detroit, St. Louis — and gets a list of employees who are about to be downsized. One by one, he sits opposite each of them, bringing them the bad news that their bosses are too weaselly to deliver personally. The victims are mostly hardworking middle managers who’ve been let go because of the economy. None of them ”deserves” to be fired, and so their reactions — terror, confusion, rage, despair — are notably intense, even as Ryan reassures them that opportunities await, that this is a beginning not an ending, and blah blah blah. (He’s also a part-time motivational speaker, pepping up the very sorts of people he fires.)
Elevated detachment is what Ryan is all about. I mean literally elevated, since most of what he does is fly around the country, hopping from one frictionless job to the next. He’s got a dozen passkeys to a dozen airport VIP lounges, boutique rent-a-car deals, and high-end cookie-cutter hotels, and the quick swipe of one of those cards expresses the joy he feels at living more or less his entire existence on the road. Ryan is a pure product of the new America, an addict for a life in which everything is systemized. He’s also hooked on frequent-flier miles, which he regards with nearly poetic aspiration (he’s out to collect a magically large number of them).
If Ryan had been played by anyone but George Clooney, we might not believe in (or like) him. But Clooney, with his effortless, cracklingly smart yet maybe slightly-too-polished charm, knows here, as he did in Michael Clayton, how to play a rogue who’s in danger of losing his soul yet holds on to it anyway. In Up in the Air, Clooney gives his most fully felt performance to date as a smooth hedonist who comes to realize that he may be drowning. This is movie-star acting of the sort that no one else today can bring off.
Ryan’s troubles begin when Natalie (Anna Kendrick), the new bottom-line chipmunk at his firm, comes up with the ”advanced” ? notion of doing away with the traveling-?axman system so that the firings can instead take place over the Internet. Since Ryan the happy vagabond doesn’t want his lifestyle to change, he takes this young climber out on the road and shows her how downsizing with humanity is done. Kendrick is a fast-talking delight (she keeps revealing more layers), but there isn’t meant to be a romantic spark to their sparring. Ryan saves that for Alex, his sexy counterpart in corporate travel — and a role that finally gives Vera Farmiga the chance to show off the biting, sharp-eyed sensuality that makes her irresistible. She’s the homespun vixen next door. Clooney and Farmiga are fantastic together: Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell for the PowerPoint age.
The ”interviews” that Ryan does with the folks he fires give you a chill. They’re a vision of what’s going on in the country today, and Up in the Air is the rare film that does justice to economic desperation by expressing it with an honest populist embrace. At the same time, it’s a movie about how one man living inside the cocoon of an overly detached culture comes to see the error of his own detachment. Up in the Air is light and dark, hilarious and tragic, romantic and real. It’s everything that Hollywood has forgotten how to do; we’re blessed that Jason Reitman has remembered. A