In a role that suits him like, well, one of those nice tailored suits, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who is, for all practical purposes, a terminator. No, not like Schwarzenegger, but rather Ryan works for a firm that is hired by other companies to do their dirty work. Ryan’s job is to fly around the country, show up at his clients’ corporate offices, and fire people. Let me say this here: thank GOD these moments aren’t played for laughs. Things are so shaky in this country right now that these moments strike as sickeningly real and are luckily dealt with using restrained sensitivity. In a room with a closed door, Ryan solemnly tells these stunned folks of their fate, and with a few gentle words explains that this end is actually opening doors to new beginnings in their lives. Watching this, you believe this schtick about as much as the people on screen receiving the news, but still I suppose that it comes across as slightly less harsh than finding your card key or login not working one morning.
Ryan’s pride in his work is wounded when he finds upon one of his few returns home to Omaha that his boss (Jason Bateman, smarm turned down a notch) has hired a hot young college graduate with exciting new ideas. Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a whelp of 23, points out that huge amounts of money could be saved by keeping people like Ryan at home, and doing the “face-to-face” firings remotely. Yep, only a kid could think that getting fired over the internet would be an improvement over getting told to your face. To show her the ropes, Ryan is instructed to take Natalie under his wing and show her, in person, what he does on those long business trips. Of course, Natalie’s eyes will be opened (very wide), lessons will be learned, and Ryan may learn something from Natalie as well.
That is just the surface plot. Ryan is a man comfortable in his jet-setting life, and feels that all he needs to carry (literally and metaphorically) can fit into a small backpack. He has an apartment he only sees 70 days a year, and a wallet full of frequent flyer, buyer, and renter cards that serve as his status in this strange, transient professional world. But he meets his match one night in a hotel bar. Gorgeous and sexy Alex (Vera Farminga) is as savvy as Ryan and is just as capable of a no-attachment lifestyle. Hook-ups are perfect for these two birds of a feather. What are your next dozen cities? Let’s put that city on our calendars. This IS just casual, right?
The characters in Up in the Air are all thrown into the position of re-evaluating their lives, either by force (the poor sods on the receiving end of the terminations) or by chance (perhaps by falling in love, or losing love). The writing is crisp and funny, and there is a nice chemistry between Clooney and Farmiga. Anna Kendrick shows that her scene-stealing in the Twilight films was no fluke, and proves that she can hold her own with an actor as established as Clooney. Plus in a film that has such charm and wit throughout, Kendrick gets the one comic moment in the film that actually made me cackle out loud with delight (insert neon awards-nomination arrow flashing over her head in this scene).
If you have worked in the corporate world, you will see much that is familiar in Up in the Air. If you have ever gone on a business trip and checked into one of those generic chain hotels, you will nod with familiarity at the images. But if you have ever been on the receiving end of a job layoff (I know I have), you will also wince with recognition during many points of this film. And that is why Up in the Air really sticks with you… Simply put, this film couldn’t be any more timely. Romantic comedies, even well-written ones like this, are always a pleasure, but Up in the Air sticks with you long after the closing credits. It’s the surprising (and effective) underlying sadness that makes it a much heavier movie than you’d ever expect.