Ground Control to Ryan Bingham
At high altitudes, where the air is dry and oxygen less plentiful, it's easy to become woozy and slightly disoriented. This sensation is actually quite pleasant when triggered by Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman's heady mix of social drama, darkish comedy and mile-high romance. Adapted from Walter Kirn's novel, the savvy dramedy could prove unsettling if you go in expecting an escapist lark, unaware that the topical subject matter is liable to hit close to home for many viewers during these tough economic times.
Reitman has tapped into the zeitgeist before. Juno, about a pregnant, whip-smart American teen, nailed the pop culture-infused patois of contemporary adolescents, due in no small measure to Diablo Cody's Oscar-winning screenplay and Ellen Page's performance. And his first feature Thank You For Smoking skewered the political correctness of coastal elites while simultaneously puncturing the gun, tobacco and alcohol lobbies.
Here, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a "transition specialist" at an Omaha company contracted by other corporations to fire their employees. Business is good for the pink-slipper extraordinaire, who logs over 300,000 miles aloft and spends 322 days of the year away from the Spartan efficiency apartment he reluctantly calls home. Ryan takes immense pride in his vagabond existence and his only discernible goal in life is to earn 10,000,000 frequent flier miles.
He relishes being in pressurized airline cabins and sanitized hotel bars. Navigating airport security lines gives him great pleasure. He obsesses over "systemized friendly touches" and squeezing the most out of the numerous loyalty programs to which he belongs. When Ryan meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), an attractive, like-minded businesswoman, Reitman tastefully eroticizes their shared fetish for the perks of an itinerant lifestyle. "I'm a sucker for simulated hospitality," Alex lasciviously and only half-sarcastically confesses. They begin a no-strings-attached relationship dictated by their travel schedules.
Ryan is also a part-time motivational speaker. In his "What’s In Your Backpack?" spiel, he recommends having as few attachments as possible, telling listeners to shed whatever weighs them down, especially relationships with other people. He embodies this misanthropic shark philosophy – "Make no mistake, moving is living" – and doesn't want marriage, kids, or much to do with his two semi-estranged sisters, who live in his Wisconsin hometown.
At one point, Ryan's young colleague Natalie (Anna Kendrick) excoriates him for living in a "cocoon of self-banishment." Natalie is an efficiency expert who has sold their boss Craig (a sublimely glib Jason Bateman) on firing people remotely via Internet videoconferences. Naturally, Ryan resists since his traveling days would be over. And before the new methodology is implemented, Craig orders Ryan to take Natalie on the road and show her what letting people go face-to-face involves.
These wrenching encounters are the guts of Up in the Air. For many audience members, watching the pain of the downsized on screen may be too much. Following a brutal protocol meant to insulate employers from legal liability, Ryan and Natalie dismiss workers in cities across the country, dispensing a few words of canned advice along with "strategy packets" that will supposedly answer any questions. Reitman uses a few recognizable actors to portray the newly unemployed, but most are played by non-professionals who have been laid off in real life. The effect is powerful, resulting in an immediacy and truthfulness that leads the viewer to feel unmoored.
The divide between the workers' variously irate, crestfallen, and pleading reactions and Ryan's fly-over elitism (as well as Natalie's undiluted-by-experience, fresh-out-of-Business-school attitude) gradually shrinks, though is never bridged completely. Ryan is softened by Natalie's growing compunction, his relationship with Alex, and his sister's wedding. To a degree, he evolves and matures. As the story unfolds, we realize that, for all his smooth detachment, Ryan is capable of empathy and is good at his job because he possesses psychological insight and sensitivity. He knows how to soothe and give hope to those he terminates.
Retaining a cheerful cynicism throughout, Reitman and co-screenwriter Sheldon Turner understand that what is implied is as powerful as what is scripted. And they take full advantage of Clooney at his peak. The movie never flinches from the harsh reality beneath its own verbal dexterity and slick packaging. Moreover, it points to better conditions beyond the distress and isolation it tellingly depicts. That's why Up in the Air will resonate across multiple divides and classes, and why it can be seen as emblematic of the decade just ending.
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated "R" for language and some sexual content.)