When I was a kid, I used to think that business travel must be fabulous, a life of glamor punctuated by new cities, fancy hotels and anything you'd like to eat, each and every meal. Then I started to travel and realized just how exhausting and disheartening it is, how it can suck the life out of you and leave you restless both on the road and at home.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has just this kind of job in Up In The Air, he's a corporate downsizer brought in to fire excess employees. It's a tough job and Bingham has made a career out of detaching, disassociating from anything that could tie him down, including his long-estranged siblings and their families.
Perpetually on the go, he meets up with fellow frequent flier Alex Goran (Vera Fermiga) and they flirt as they empty their wallets onto the hotel bar table, comparing rewards programs and avoiding anything personal. They end up in bed, and next morning coolly try to find an overlap in their travel schedules so they can meet up again. Soon they're sending each other suggestive text messages and getting involved romantically.
Meanwhile, Bingham's boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) has been bowled over by the young, fresh scrubbed efficiency expert Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who is convinced that they can just as easily fire people via video conferences and save millions by not having the senior staff in the air.
I've become quite a fan of Clooney in the last few years and expected to like Up In The Air, but it was still much better than I expected. It's a delightful, unpretentious, perfectly assembled romance for our times. Better yet, it unfolds in surprising and unexpected ways and left me satisfied with its distinctly non-Hollywood ending. Strongly recommended.
Frequent travelers live in their own worlds, having become extraordinarily good at traveling light by necessity. After all, as Bingham explains, "Over your life, that 30 minutes spent waiting for checked baggage means you're going to waste entire days standing around." He presents workshops to other frequent travelers entitled "What's In Your Backpack?" At one point in his workshop, he explains "don't carry pictures: photos are for people who can't remember."
Director Jason Reitman has a light touch with this material, sufficiently so that I'd be surprised if he didn't receive an Academy nomination for Best Director for Up In The Air. There are many points in the movie where it could have turned maudlin or sappy, but those were all deftly sidestepped.
For example, in one scene Bingham offers to walk his estranged younger sister Julie (Melanie Lynskey) down the church aisle at her wedding, but she informs him that she's asked someone else already. That could have become a cloying, sappy scene but was instead presented without pretension of A Deeper Meaning, making it a far more satisfying and believable scene.
Ryan (George Clooney) and Alex (Vera Farmiga) flirting at the bar
Road warriors have an on-the-road life that's often quite different from their home life, something that's played out in a surprising manner in the movie. Again, it's a surprise not because we expect things to be exactly as they seem in life, but precisely because we are so used to Hollywood storylines where things aren't believable but instead proceed in boring, safe paths.
There's also the emotionally challenging task of firing someone from a company that just doesn't need them any more. Multiple times in the film we see a montage of employees being fired and their various reactions. It deeply affects Natalie, who ends up in the field watching how Bingham goes through the process of terminating employees. "We are here to make limbo tolerable" he explains at one point, and later reminds her that "we take people at their most fragile and set them adrift..."
As a favor, Bingham's older sister Kara (Amy Morton) asks him to take a cardboard cutout of Julie and her fiancee Jim (Danny McBride) and take a photo of it in front of the Luxor casino in Las Vegas. Initially reluctant, Alex helps Ryan get into the spirit of the project and by the time the two of them attend Julie's wedding he has a half-dozen photos of the cut-out in various locations throughout the United States. But are the photos what matters, or is it the process of taking the pictures that's important?
The core relationships in the movie, however, are between Ryan and Alex, who have a steamy relationship, and between Ryan and Natalie, the latter of whom acts as a reminder of his younger, more optimistic self. As both relations follow their inevitable paths, we learn quite a bit about Bingham, and yet, do we ever learn anything about this man who has spent his life keeping his metaphorical backpack as light as possible?
I've seen a lot of movies in 2009, but few of them have left me both entertained and thoughtful. Up In The Air accomplishes this difficult task and makes it look easy. Clooney has a suave, elegant style that's becoming more and more reminiscent of Cary Grant, and Vera Farmiga brings a sexy, thoughtful energy to her role. All in all, a splendid film, highly recommended, and one that I think has a good shot at the Best Picture Academy Award. I know it's one of my favorites of the year.
Just go see it. I'm confident you'll like Up In The Air.