Up in the Air (2009): Jason Reitman’s Best Film, Starring George Clooney and Vera Farmiga

Up in the Air Up in the Air Up in the Air Up in the Air Up in the Air poster

 

Highly relevant, well-acted, briskly paced, and vastly entertaining “Up in the Air,” a socio-economic satire in tune with our zeitgeist, is as of today one of the best pictures of the year. 
Among many achievements, the movie features George Clooney in his most deeply heartfelt and resonant performance to date. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the role, which, as written, is not entirely sympathetic, with any other actor but him. I have no doubts that Clooney’s work will earn him a spot on the Best Actor Oscar list.
“Up in the Air” world premiered to great acclaim at the Telluride and Toronto Film Fests, and Paramount will release the comedy in December, in time for Oscar Awards and other critics’ kudos considerations. 
If my reading is valid, “Up in the Air” should get at least six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director for Jason Reitman, Screenplay, Actor for Clooney, Supporting Actress for Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick.
In a separate column, I’ll discuss the truly amazing, rapidly evolving career of George Clooney, one of Hollywood’s most charismatic and versatile actors, who gets better and better with each assignment and shows a particularly “good nose” for choosing material that is not only politically timely (“Syriana,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Michael Clayton,” “The Men Who Stare at Goats”) but suits his skills and screen persona. He is no longer just the suave and smooth “Cary Grant for our times,” as I have described him a decade ago.
With this picture, his third after “Thank You for Smoking” and the Oscar-winning “Juno,” Jason Reitman makes a quantum leap forward as a director, proving that, alongside Alexander Payne, he may be one of Hollywood’s most acute satirists, working in the tradition of the late, brilliant writer-director Preston Sturges (and I can’t think of a greater compliment that that).
That said, “Up in the Air” is not a perfect film: The last reel is a tad too soft and conventional, considering the high, biting notes with which the picture begins. Additionally, at this juncture, Reitman, just like Payne, lacks a distinctive visual style. Nonetheless, the film has so much to offer that I’d first like to single out its many positive attributes. 
Based upon the sharply observed novel by Walter Kirn, the screenplay is co-authored by Sheldon Turner and director Reitman, who’s also credited as producer, alongside his father, Jason Reitman, who made some funny comedies in the 1980s (the “Ghostbusters” series and several Schwarzenegger comedies).
Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a suave corporate downsizer, a consummate modern business traveler who’s always well groomed, clean-shaven, wearing elegant suits and ties.   In a witty and poignant commentary, Ryan narrates his journey, revealing early on, “To know me is to travel with me.” It’s an irresistible invitation to us viewers, and we gladly follow him from one airport to another and from one lounge to the next.
It should come as no surprise that Ryan spends most of his time flying (American Airlines, by the way), staying in hotels (Hilton, at this saga), and renting cars (Hertz). Here is a man, who has convinced himself and projects the image of long being contented with his unencumbered lifestyle. Rich but emotionally homeless, he lives out across America in various airports, dozen of which are identified in the tale by title cards. He operates out of his base in Omaha, but the house, fridge and closets are nearly empty.
Appealingly arrogant, efficiently economic, precise and compact, Ryan can carry all he needs in one wheel-away case, and he’s good at lecturing others, for which he’s handsomely paid, about how to pack all of their belongings, family, and friends in one back pack that doesn’t weigh too much.
A pampered, elite member of every travel loyalty program in existence, Ryan is now close to attaining his lifetime goal of 10 million frequent flier miles, which will make him only the seventh person in the world who has achieved that. (Ryan correctly observed that more people have taken a flight to the moon than acquired his mileage status).
The filmmakers go out of their way not to stereotype Ryan, which would have been too facile, and not to judge him harshly as an aloof man who has nothing “real” to hold onto. Indeed, Reitman and his co-scribe should get credit for their non-judgmental approach, and for going beyond a simple translation of Kirn’s estimable book to the screen. The writers took Kirn’s main character and forged a set of original dramatic circumstances around him, including the crafting of two female characters that, in due time, each using her own means, would shatter Ryan well-constructed cocoon of individuality. 
The first woman is Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a seemingly gung-ho if naïve, twenty-something efficiency expert whom Ryan takes under his wings, at first reluctantly—despite the fact that she basically threatens his lifestyle with her new method of firing people from their jobs, or as she puts it, “preparing them with new opportunities in the future. 
The other, more alluring and significant femme is Alex (Vera Farmiga, gorgeous with those pure blue eyes), a woman who seems to be Ryan’s business travel soul-mate, eventually sparking his first-ever desire for more than just a fleeting link to another human being. However, in their first encounter, Alex lays her cards on the table at the airport over Martinis: “Just think of me as you think of yourself—only with vagina!”
The fourth, less developed character in the film is Ryan’s boss (Jason Bateman), who’s at first inspired by the young, upstart efficiency expert Natalie to permanently call Ryan in from the road. The two men communicate mostly via phone, or texting or computers, and their conversations are brief and to the point. 
You could say that, on at least one level, “Up in the Air” is a coming of age saga, except that the protagonist is forty-something, instead of the more customary figure in such movies, a teenager or twenty-something character. Going through mid-life crisis (male menopause), Ryan is a man at the crossroads. Faced with the prospect, at once terrifying and exhilarating, of being grounded, he begins to contemplate more seriously than ever before what it might actually mean to have a meaningful home, familial responsibilities (toward his older sister and her niece who’s about to get married), and perhaps even commitment to one woman. 
It’s at this point in the film, the very last reel, that “Up in the Air” becomes more conventional and moralistic, depicting a man who, after years of staying happily airborne and happily single, begins to learn life lessons (what it means to be on the other side of the equation, to be rejected and humiliated), finding himself ready to make real connections and settle down into a more mainstream and bourgeois lifestyle. 
Benefiting from good cinematography by Eric Steelberg, and production design by Steve Saklad, “Up in the Air” is stylish, but not stylish enough. There’s a considerable gap between the thematic-narrative level, which is excellent, and the visual-technical aspects, which are decent, but not distinguished or distinctive enough. 
That said, this is Jason Reitman’s only third feature, and I am confident that he can (and will) improve his technical skills in the future so that his authorial voice, which is already remarkable, will become even more impressive and effective.

 

Cast

Ryan Bingham – George Clooney
Alex Goran – Vera Farmiga
Natalie Keener – Anna Kendrick
Craig Gregory – Jason Bateman
Jim Miller – Danny McBride
Julie Bingham – Melanie Lynskey
Kara Bingham – Amy Morton
Maynard Finch – Sam Elliott
Bob – J.K. Simmons
Steve – Zach Galifianakis

 

Credits
A Paramount release presented in association with Cold Spring Pictures and DW Studios of a Montecito Pictures Co. production, in association with Rickshaw Pictures, in association with Right of Way Films.
Produced by Daniel Dubiecki, Jeffrey Clifford, Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman.
Executive producers, Ted Griffin, Michael Beugg, Tom Pollock, Joe Medjuck.
Directed by Jason Reitman.
Screenplay, Reitman, Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn.
Camera, Eric Steelberg.
Editor, Dana E. Glauberman.
Music, Rolfe Kent.
Production designer, Steve Saklad; art director, Andrew Max Cahn; set decorator, Linda Sutton-Doll.
Costume designer, Danny Glicker.
Sound, Steven A. Morrow; supervising sound editors, Perry Robertson, Scott Sanders; re-recording mixers, Gregory H. Watkins, J. Stanley Johnston.
Associate producers, Ali Bell, Jason Blumenfeld, Helen Estabrook. Assisistant director, Blumenfeld.
Casting, Mindy Marin.
Running time: 108 Minutes.