Ryan Bingham (a nuanced performance from man of the festival, George Clooney) is a corporate downsizer for hire. He spends most of his life in airports, flying to industrial states in America, visiting workplaces and firing the staff. When we meet him he is on the receiving end of abuse, disbelief, emotional fallout from blue collar workers being let go of (firing is not a word he or his company use). He is a man of routine and control and much like the comparable Phileas Fogg he is not immediately likable. He values his transience, lives out of his suitcase and, while he is not insensitive to the life changing blow he is delivering, he is very good at his job.
Enter Natalie, a recent graduate recruited into Bingham’s firm with drastic ideas that will pull the magic carpet from under Bingham’s feet, grounding him to deliver his bad news via video chat software. Incensed by this Bingham is tasked with escorting Natalie (played with peppy charm by Twilight’s own Anna Kendrick) around the US, while continuing a burgeoning affair with a similar status obsessed career addict Alex, played by Vera Farmiga.
This journey provides the backbone of the film, and whisks us across the country on a road trip that has heartbreak and hilarity, life lessons and blossoming love”¦wait, don’t stop reading. This might be sold as a rom-com, but Up in the Air is vastly superior to any lightweight notions that tiresome tag may conjure. There is a dark, intelligent heart to the film, unveiled with delicacy and an almost unnerving realism by Reitman and his players and makes for a surprising and engaging experience.
What impressed me most was how the characters are built, and how solid they appear while they are sparking insults and exchanging existential moments. Reitman succeeds in drawing out stellar performances from each actor, Clooney is entirely convincing and charismatic in his leading role, playing the reluctant father to Natalie and the detached charmer with Alex, he never puts a foot wrong and, as if to pinpoint the crucial difference between this film and Juno, he never talks as if in a film. Anna Kendrick shows considerable capability and is vulnerable and charming. However it is in the cameos and big names in small roles that really elevate this film. From Melanie Lynskey’s endearing sister to Reitman regular Jason Bateman’s uninterested senior suit and Sam Elliott Lebowski-esque supernal manifestation, each role is treated with precision and pathos and adds weight to the narrative.
The script, adapted by Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner from the novel by Walter Kim, succeeds in winding through the genres I listed above with great aplomb, delivering jokes and character moments that elicited huge laughs from the audience. It also allows us to sympathise with that contemporary grim reaper, swept up by the economic climate, the corporate downsizer, but it never lets the genre conventions hold it, and we follow every turn with ease and eagerness.
The film asks many questions, and doesn’t attempt to provide any solid answers. Of what stuff is our life comprised? What holds us to the ground? Is our identity made of the choices we make, or the ones we choose not to see? The pace of the film never slows and in the end we, as the audience, are left with no great resolution and answer, but all questions are variants on the same theme: What makes us happy?
Thank you for Smoking and Juno, Reitman’s previous directorial engagements were witty, well told stories with a capable mix of style and substance. Up in the Air borrows from both of these films with the analytical eye on the corporate life and our identity within it from the former and it has the witty, but not over-stylised, dialogue and layered characterisation from the latter. This film trumps them both however and it is Reitman’s best work to date.
Each moment, from the sublime aerial shots of the title sequence to the beautiful and unexpected moment during the credits (which you must stay for – it will send shivers through you) it is a film with heart, wit and charm, a solid script that is genuinely funny. And it will make you happy.
Up In The Air is released in the UK on the 15th of January 2010.