In Theaters: Up in the Air
[Editor's note: This review was originally published Sept. 11, 2009, as part of our TIFF coverage.]
Less than 24 hours after watching George Clooney sit across from an Iraqi goat and telepathically snuff it out of existence, I was watching him do essentially the same thing to a stream of ill-fated members of the American workforce in Up in the Air, Jason Reitman's astutely observed and surprisingly uplifting meditation on one man's pathological tendency towards isolationism. That that man, Ryan Bingham, would choose the career path he did -- working for a third-party concern leased out to corporations who'd rather avoid the face-to-face messiness of large-scale layoffs -- only serves to enable his particular form of sociopathy. Ryan crisscrosses my land and your land like a mighty, modern-day Paul Bunyon, proudly wielding his axe and swinging his downsizing blows so efficiently, he's often out the door before his targets even realize that they've been reduced to stumps.
Well, that's not entirely true. They're frequently aware, but Ryan is great at his job. He knows how to react to any situation the circumstances throw at him, lobbing back canned morsels of concern as if they were Hallmark sympathy cards. Then off he goes, back up into the air and onto his next destination, settling into the blissfully sterile culture of air travel: the icy green glow of an automated check-in screen; the smile from a flesh-and-blood employee who helps guide your fingers to the right buttons; the security line tango; and of course the premium lounges. It's in one of those faux-mahogany-lined cubbyholes of airport privilege where he meets his soulmate, if he were the soulmate-seeking type, in Alex. (She's played by Vera Farmiga like your favorite Louis Vuitton carry-on -- sexy, familiar, dependable, with some barely detectable damage inside.)
"[I'm] yourself, only with a vagina," she tells Ryan during one of their many suite à suite cellphone chats, long, soul-baring conversations interrupted by the occasional swapping of schedules and bodily fluids at random spots on the American Airlines route map. Meanwhile, Ryan finds another unlikely recurring character in his life: Natalie (Twilight's Anna Kendrick), an uptight, fresh-out-of-college hotshot who impressed Ryan's prick of a boss (Jason Bateman, in a one-note role) with her plans to replace face-to-face layoffs with videoconferencing. Realizing his job -- and more importantly his lifestyle -- are on the line, he brings Natalie on the road with him to learn the ropes, where she's quickly liberated by an itinerant, business-class lifestyle of crashed tech conferences and one-night/one-city stands.
If that transformation reads as pat, that's because it is -- one of several conveniences neatly packed into a script that consistently engages from moment to moment, but whose gears can perhaps spin just a little too loudly when you pull back for the aerial view. Clooney is in full command here, landing elegantly on every beat and no doubt finding a lot of himself in the passages devoted to Ryan's matter-of-fact reluctance to marry or have children. One struggles to envision any other actor in the part -- and yet that cuts both ways, as the barren Midwestern one-bedroom where Ryan begrudgingly spends the 30-odd days of the year he isn't traveling instantly strains credulity. So does a sojourn home to Wisconsin for his sister's wedding, and the stilted conversation that follows with his panic-stricken brother-in-law; with respect to Danny McBride, whose work I admire, his presence here as the groom-to-maybe is entirely unnecessary, and temporarily grounds the proceedings.
Reitman is a feverishly talented and meticulous filmmaker; he's also an unapologetically populist one. It's a blessing and a curse: On the one hand, you'll emerge from Up in the Air feeling as if all your questions have been answered, your zeitgeist bone has been tickled, and your expectations (even your expectations of the unexpected) have been tidily met. But just ask Ryan -- life doesn't always work out that way.