George Clooney as Ryan Bingham
Vera Farmiga as Alex Goran
Anna Kendrick as Natalie Keener
Jason Bateman as Craig Gregory
Amy Morton as Kara Bingham
Melanie Lynskey as Julie Bingham
J.K. Simmons as Bob
Sam Elliott as Maynard Fincher
Danny McBride as Jim Miller
Topical social stories have been a lot of filmmakers’ Waterloo’s; they all to easily turn picayune or provincial, representatives of the writer or director’s particular opinion about some subject they find interesting or important rather than a story. Even in a medium as naturally collaborative as film is, it can be hard for the director to gain the distance necessary to see whether their personal philosophy is actually holding them back, not helping them.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has that same problem; he just doesn’t know it yet. Short of the guy who cleans sewer drains, he may have the worst job on earth. Ryan has spent the better part of his life telling people getting fired that they’re getting fired, because their bosses don’t have the guts. His response to this, all things being equal, actually makes perfect sense: he’s cut all ties to the human race. He has no friends, no home and for all intents and purposes, no family. He lives up in the air, only touching ground for the few moments necessary to change planes or do his job.
And he likes it that way. He’s perfectly content in the way only the truly ignorant can be.
“Up in the Air” could be an unmitigated disaster. It’s the sort of thing that could be so knowing, so certain of itself and its conclusions that it would be impossible to watch, to take seriously. It requires a great deal of charm and balanced directorial hand to keep that from happening. Fortunately, “Up in the Air” has large measures of both.
Clooney’s Ryan is, and it should come as no surprise, really, really charming. He has to be in his job, he’s touching people when they’re at their most vulnerable, the only time he ever interacts with anyone on a human level. Most people are just acquaintances like Alex (Vera Farmiga) to spend time with before moving on. His entire life has been built around that philosophy; he even gives speeches about it. In a lot of ways, that’s all he’s got.
So he understandably panics when bright young executive Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) threatens to turn the one element of human contact in his life into a remote phone call and script from an office. To ground Ryan, from everyone, for the rest of his life.
Stories about alienation being caused by modern life aren’t exactly modern. It’s not only a common feeling but probably a pretty ancient one. The Babylonians probably felt it, too. It’s tough to tackle that subject and not get caught up in the potential pitfalls of easy sermonizing and righteous indignation.
“Up in the Air” succeeds because it doesn’t really take itself that seriously, though it’s not a comedy. It’s not interested in trying to patronizingly explain obvious truths to the rest of us plebeians. All it wants is to show us a moment of fundamental change in a man’s life. And that’s plenty good enough.
As he looks for solutions to the existential dilemma he finds himself in–what to do with his life once he can see the flaws in it–the personal philosophy that has guided him for so long appears hollow. He’s cast adrift, looking for the only thing that can really anchor anyone to a time and place: another person.
A film like this lives and dies on its performances and they are generally excellent throughout. Clooney actually has done better work, but not much and not often. “Up in the Air” is an excellent reminder how good he can be with the right material. Vera Farmiga matches him smirk for wink and their chemistry propels most of “Up in the Air” along.
But it works best during the brief moments in the middle when they’re joined by Ryan’s 20-something young nemesis-cum-student Natalie, who he has been forced to teach his way of living and working so that she can completely change it. The film may be about Ryan, but Natalie’s the heart of it and despite all of Clooney and Farmiga’s flirting, it’s Ryan and Natalie’s relationship that really drives the film and makes it work.
It also looks fantastic, moving at an easy rhythm and pace that never relents or overwhelms. Being a film about traveling, “Up in the Air” is essentially a road movie, or at least holds up a lot of the conventions of one. And it works. As trite as it is, the saying is true; it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.
And that’s certainly true of “Up in the Air.” It’s wonderfully unsatisfying. Like Ryan himself, the film is traveling, traveling, traveling but it’s not going to get anywhere. That may or may not be good, but it is true, and that has a quality all its own.