Up in the Air
There is something oddly familiar about Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, in which George Clooney plays a commitment-phobic business traveler with no use for meaningful human interaction. Could have sworn we’ve been here before. When was it? And where?
Oh, yes, of course: Joel and Ethan Coen’s Intolerable Cruelty, released in the fall of 2003 and forgotten by that year’s first freeze. The comedy featured Clooney as a divorce lawyer who was the love of his own life till she came along — Catherine Zeta-Jones, who convinced him that he had, gulp, soul. Which is why, just as he was set to deliver the Big Speech to a roomful of attorneys about how to gut unhappy couples, he stepped up to the microphone, tore up his prepared remarks, and decided, instead, to speak “from the heart.” Poor bastard never knew what hit him.
The scene replays itself, only slightly altered, in Reitman’s very loose and awfully affecting adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel about Ryan Bingham, who delivers motivational speeches in hotel ballrooms (when he’s not busy traversing the flyover states delivering pink slips) about emptying one’s metaphoric backpack. “How much does your life weigh?” he asks his audience, before ticking off all the “stuff” that turns one’s life into a parade of “negotiations, arguments, secrets, compromises.” Ditch it all, he demands; live unencumbered, without commitment, without companionship, without love.
Only, just maybe, the preacher is still capable of conversion. He’ll speak from the heart … just wait a minute, it’s around here somewhere. This is no spoiler; pat resolutions are not Up in the Air‘s endgame.
“All the things you probably hate about traveling,” Ryan says in voice-over, “are warm reminders I am home.” And so begins his tale, in which contemporary corporate woe is commingled with old-fashioned movie-star romance laced with sincerity and smarts till it adds up to something pretty special. We play the passengers, stuck next to Ryan on a plane, the part-time intimates to whom he smugly narrates his life story. And through Ryan, Reitman has found his voice — somewhere between the satirist and the humanist.
Up in the Air begins as a dark joke in which the unencumbered man sees himself not as the firing squad but as a liberator. He doesn’t hurt; he heals. And, even better, he does so in a different city every day: Ryan flies 322 days out of the year to sleep in a strange hotel, walk into a strange office, hand strangers their fates, offer them canned condolences that at least sound sincere, then hustle to a strange airport to begin the ritual anew — all to reach the personal goal of 10 million miles flown for no other reason than “I’d be the seventh person to do it,” he explains.
Then the women board, one by one, till Ryan is crowded out of his first-class narcissism. First, there is Alex (Vera Farmiga). She’s his kinda gal: a part-time lover who’ll commit only as far as the next connecting flight will take her. Then there’s Natalie (Anna Kendrick), the cocky Cornell grad who has convinced the boss (Jason Bateman) that it’s possible to fire remotely, over an Internet connection. So Ryan is tasked with training Natalie — show her how it feels to ruin someone’s life at close range. And then there’s Ryan’s sister, Julie (Melanie Lynskey), whose pending wedding brings with it the kind of baggage that cannot be checked at the counter.
It’s clear that Ryan’s in store for some kind of emotional transformation, but it’s so elegantly played that you’ll actually believe it. This is the most vulnerable, the most playful, the most human performance of Clooney’s career.
Nothing enormous happens in Up in the Air — no great tragedy, no big melodrama. Just the average pain suffered by mortals who, whether in the sky or on land, are looking for firmer ground.