Up In The Air (Jason Reitman, 2009)

31Jul10

George Clooney (Ryan Bingham), Vera Farmiga (Alex), Anna Kendrick (Natalie Keener), Jason Bateman (Craig Gregory). Screenplay by Sheldon Turner and Jason Reitman. Directed by Jason Reitman. Rating: 15. Running time: 108 minutes.

It looked like it would be so dull, didn’t it? Seriously – George Clooney flying around sacking people for 2 hours non-stop. How on earth could that make a good film?

I really didn’t expect much before I had seen Up In The Air, but immediately after having done so I realised just how misleading its plot synopsis had been. This is indeed a film about travel and unemployment, but it’s also about so much more than that. It blends effortlessly these two strands of detail, and then packs it with more lines of thought regarding relationships, living alone, and, more subtly, the digitalisation of life. It’s not dull in the slightest. In fact, it was probably the best film of 2009. And we know right from its opening credits, playing to the sound of a funked-up version of ‘This Land Is Your Land’ to shots of the sky, that this was always going to be a lot hipper than we ever would have believed.

Clooney, then, plays Ryan Bingham, who likes to consider himself to have made a highly original but wonderful life choice. To put it in terms of his motivational speech on backpacks, his is undoubtedly empty. He has no home, unless you can give that name to an empty one bedroomed flat in Nebraska that he spends 1 month a year in. Nor does he have a wife or children, instead insisting humans are ‘sharks,’ not star-crossed lovers and monogamous swans. He doesn’t even really have a family: when his sister calls asking for a favour, she starts by saying she ‘knows how you are about doing things for others.’ He’s a liberated soul who lives like a bourgeois Kerouac on the road, except instead he’s Up In The Air, and for him life is about exactly that: the exhilaration we get from constantly being on the move.

A single ultra-chic opening scene captures this all magnificently: we watch quickly-edited snapshots of him packing his wheelable suitcase (that, naturally, just counts as hand luggage, because given the amount of time he spends flying, checking in bags would cost him a week of his life every year), before he proceeds to dart to the airport, skip through check-in in the First Class queue, and then waltz through security like it’s some sort of ballet dance. I’m convinced only Clooney could pull off a look and feel as easy as this.

His job, of course, is to fly out and fire people. It sounds brutal, and some of the clips we see of apparently real unemployed people reacting to his words are not easy to stomach to say the least. But Bingham makes sacking an art, and he knows exactly what to say to get them out of the door and as comforted as they can possibly be given the circumstances. He loves the job, and that’s why his company’s plans to pull him off the road and into iChat cost-cutting sacking sessions disturb him greatly. The move is inspired by a goofy college-grad called Natalie, who Bingham is forced to show the ropes. She’s young, she’s in love, but when she’s dumped by a text message Bingham chides her about how it’s almost as bad as trying to fire somebody over the internet.

Natalie doesn’t get him at all. When he meets Alex, played by the devilishly flirtatious Vera Farmiga, Bingham naturally falls for his seemingly free-living female equivalent. But it remains strictly casual, and Natalie cannot understand how it never enters Bingham’s head not to consider a future with her. He explains: “you know that moment when you look into someone’s eyes and you can feel them staring into your soul and the whole world goes quiet just for a second? Well I don’t.”

We get the impression that changes. Don’t worry, we’re not given a stupidly soft ending in which his life-approach alters and he finally commits to someone. In fact, in the final scenes Bingham is living exactly how he started off. The point is, though, that he genuinely does care for Alex, and only unforeseen circumstances prevent him from pursuing the relationship further. But he definitely liked her more than he would have wanted to, taking her to his sister’s wedding and breaking into his old school to show her around in the middle of winter in northern Wisconsin. These scenes are Up In The Air‘s sweetest moments, and not for one moment do they feel out of touch or forced given his way of life for the rest of the film.

This is all mixed up so well with comedy. I haven’t mentioned a lot of the film’s funniest scenes, but they are genuinely amusing in a way reminiscent of Reitman’s other great film, Juno. Both play on awkward conversations, and yet also manage to retain a sense of sincere purpose whilst remaining fun and featherlight and not falling into self-indulgence. I’ve become a real sucker for Up In The Air. It really is, without knowing it, the quietest of cinematic masterpieces.

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