There have already been plenty of words devoted to all the ways in which Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is especially timely, so let’s instead consider the elements that make it timeless. Yes, the profession of the film’s main character–who jets across the country to deliver the troublesome news of company firings, a service provided to cowardly managers–has a ripped-from-the-headlines-of-the-business-section relevancy that heightens the urgency of the whole endeavor, but it’s the undercurrents of the film that elevate it past being a recession-era think piece. As the outsourced downsizer, George Clooney digs deeper than he has before onscreen to get at his character’s simmering need to make a connection, a feeling that can be applied across eras.
Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is good at his job, not just maneuvering across the minefield of being the bearer of the worst possible occupational news, but also the simple mechanics of perpetually living out of a suitcase (the compact model, ready to be wedged into a variety of overhead compartments) and slicing through airport terminals with the greatest efficiency. He’s a modern variant of Tom Wolfe’s old masters of the universe, completely in command of his place in the intricate black widow web of corporate America, achieving great success at the expense of others. His happily solitary life is challenged in different ways by two women who come into his life anew: a fellow traveler, and a youthful innovator who he’s charged with mentoring on the road, played by Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, respectively. These two characters are distinctive, complete, and as thoroughly woven into the fabric of the film as Clooney’s. From the standpoint of the drama, they are clearly there to help shape the protagonist’s journey, but, as opposed to how many films work, they don’t feel like secondary constructions. They are supporting roles, not subservient ones. That doesn’t seem like an observation that should be all that remarkable, but such a thing is strikingly rare. In response, both Farmiga and Kendrick turn in memorable performances that hit their own unique notes of moving.
Jason Reitman directed the film after adapting the screenplay from a novel by Walter Kirn (Sheldon Turner is also a credited writer on the film). Just as Juno was a significant step forward from his debut, Thank You For Smoking, this third outing marks great progress as a filmmaker. He’s especially good at balancing out the often delicate tone of the movie, which slaloms between bittersweet comedy and piercing studies in the way disappointment descends, often when least expected. It’s a film that thrillingly about adults. It’s about the vast array of choices that are laid before a life, and the inevitable compromises that result when there are only so many departing flights that you can get on. There are no easy answers, just fumbling attempts at getting things right followed by, at best, fleeting moments of reward. That may seem like a fairly downbeat assessment, but movies as good as Up in the Air are their own sort of celebration.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)