Mark Reviews Movies

UP IN THE AIR (2009)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jason Reitman

Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, J.K. Simmons, Sam Elliot, Danny McBride

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Running Time: 1:49

Release Date: 12/4/09 (limited); 12/25/09 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 3, 2009

He has heard it all. "How can I look at my kids?" "How do I tell my wife?" "How will I be able to pay my mortgage/rent/bills?" "How can they treat me like this after [insert number] years with the company?" "How could this happen to me?"

Occasionally, like in the beginning of Up in the Air, he will hear, "Who are you?"

Indeed, who is Ryan Bingham? He fires people for a living, for one thing. He works for a company that other companies contract to handle layoffs. In this economy, that's a growth industry.

He is very skilled at what he does. When he talks to the people he's "letting go" or making aware that "their position is no longer available" (For legal reasons, of course, it's never "fired"), he talks to them as people. He looks them in the eyes. He listens to their grievances as though it's the first time he's heard them. He never tells them how difficult this is for him; he is not the issue.

He tells them how this is the opportunity to make something better than the situation they're in now. You won't be able to look at your kids without feeling like a failure in their eyes? Could you look at them before without sense of shame? After all, didn't you want to do something else with your life before you started working here to pay the mortgage in the first place? Well, this is your chance.

Up in the Air is about a man who tries to make a terrible situation for other people into one of opportunity and growth in their minds. He does it so well, and yet he has never looked at his own life with the same perspective he offers others.

One of the big questions we have watching him do his dirty work is, "Is he lying?" As played by George Clooney, Ryan is not lying. He believes every word he tells them, because he doesn't convey too much to them. He tells them just what they need to hear, and even if he's talking in clichés or words of encouragement (His personal favorite: "Every person who's changed the world or built an empire has sat where you're sitting now"), he believes every, precisely chosen word of it. If he can talk so sincerely of past dreams, did he have one before?

Clooney is one of the best at playing a smoothly professional operator, and he does it here yet again. But there is also a deep vulnerability, full of subtle glimpses of something we can't quite grasp, that meticulously crawls out of his shield of emotional isolation and separation from the world. He starts off the film confident and complacent, and he ends it in the same place. After everything that happens to him in between, though, that's a tragedy.

Of course, it all starts with a woman. He meets Alex (Vera Farmiga) in a hotel bar, and they go back to his room together. After sex, they break out their notebook computers to find out when and where their schedules meet.

Ryan flies a lot for his job. His goal in life is to reach ten million miles on his frequent flier card. Last year, he says, he spent 322 days on the road, leaving 43 "miserable" days at home. His apartment is bare with only the essentials: a bed, a table and chairs, and a refrigerator full of condiments.

Director Jason Reitman so seamlessly infuses these almost satirical moments into the context of the character study surrounding them they are more another facet of Ryan than a jab at some type he represents.

This is Reitman's third film, and he has proven in each of them to be able to transcend gimmick and make it personal and then further transcend that and make it universal. So much here is rife for broad satire—a man who lives out of his wallet, has compartmentalized his life to fit into a single carry-on bag, and argues about the joys of independent, single living only to meet a seemingly ideal mate—but he is too concerned about his characters to descend to obvious observations or generalizations.

Take another character to enter his life unexpectedly. She's Natalie (Anna Kendrick), an up-and-coming outside-the-box thinker who thinks she can revolutionize the way Ryan's company does business. Ryan's boss (Jason Bateman) loves the idea of cutting the company's transportation costs by 85 percent by doing all the firing via web cam. Ryan knows better and takes Natalie with him on his next round of terminations, to show her the ropes and to prove work like this needs a personal touch.

Natalie doesn't understand Ryan's bachelorhood and lack of desire to ever settle down, get married, and have kids. He is content with the way life is, and as he and Alex begin seeing each other more, we wonder when the other shoe will drop. They get closer even while spending so much time apart. Is he truly opening up, or is it just testing the waters only to discover that life as it's been is all he really needs?

As much as we learn about Ryan, a lot is left a mystery. How long he's been working for the company, if he's ever had any kind of serious relationship in the past, and even what, if anything, has happened to him in his past to make him so unwilling to share some part of himself with another human being are all left unresolved. We only see what we need to know to see the kind of man he is. Alex starts to show him the kind of man he could be.

Reitman, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Sheldon Turner (based on the book by Walter Kirn), doesn't sentimentalize. There's a wedding sequence, in which Ryan returns home after who knows how long to see his younger sister (Melanie Lynskey) get married. He offers to walk her down the aisle, but her fiancé's uncle has that job. His other sister (Amy Morton) reminds him that he's never there, but after the suggestion is turned down, we see on his face that he doesn't need the recap. After the fiancé (Danny McBride) gets cold feet, he gives his future brother-in-law a motivational speech about a life's clock ticking away with everyone ending up in the same place. Why not have someone along for the ride?

I've spent all this time about Ryan, but there's no other way to honestly get to the heart of the film. It's about a man learning that there might be more to life and regretting what's he's missed in his life so far, and it does this with a singular, ultimately heart-breaking vision. Even the big speech scene is cut short, because Reitman, like the best dramatists, realizes that it's not what a person says but what he does that defines him.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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