Jason Reitman’s almost flawless, award-winning third film arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray today.
The darling of last year’s critic’s awards (if not the Academy), Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air is a hard film not to love for its many intelligent and well crafted components, all of which work to entertain you and make you feel as if you’re seeing something substantial – as most of the time you are. It’s full of charming and relaxed performances from veteran and emerging talent, a carefully structured plot with easily identifiable situations and – and! – it boasts a script with that rarest of Hollywood spectacles: a refusal to treat its audience as if we’re irretrievably stupid. So if the film never quite works out all the ideas it puts forward, you may not entirely mind.
George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a “termination facilitator” who’s all too happy to jet around the country laying off downsized employees on behalf of their chicken-hearted bosses. It’s dirty work but he doesn’t mind, because the lifestyle of easy, superficial comforts provided by business hotels and frequent flyer amenities allow him freedom from the “baggage” of emotional involvement. He even has a sideline gig as a motivational speaker, giving talks in business-class hotel conference rooms about how to free your “backpack” from what’s weighing you down.
Bingham’s life of happily superficial solitude goes sideways in three directions at once: he begins a casual, no-strings-attached affair with fellow road warrior Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), one based on sex, mutual company, and their enthusiasm for luxury without consequences. Jovial and privileged, they’re both validated by what they feel entitled to, including each other. At work, he finds his way of life threatened by upstart new employee Nathalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a recent college grad who’s sold their boss (Jason Bateman) on converting the layoff business towards video conferencing – effectively firing people over the Internet. Back home, the sister “he barely knows” is getting married, compelling his return to a family that almost doesn’t register on his emotional radar (Reitman’s and collaborator Sheldon Turner’s adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel wears its travel metaphors on its sleeve.)
Bingham copes by taking Keener with him on the road, to show her the benefits of the personal touch when firing lifelong employees. The clash between Bingham the pragmatic, ageing Gen X’er and Keener’s self-confident, vaguely hipsterish youth gives much of the film its dramatic weight but also its humor. When Keener’s fiancé dumps her via text message, her emotional meltdown in a sunny hotel lobby puts the generational contrast into hilarious, if wrenching, detail as Bingham and Goran try to gently persuade her to get used to disappointment in life. It’s a wonderful scene, perfectly played all around and devastating in its accuracy. If you don’t wince and nod at least once watching it, you probably haven’t turned 35 yet.
Only in the last third, when the time comes to both ratchet up the dramatic tension and resolve some of its ideas, do Reitman and the film start to lose their footing. For as little about herself as she puts forth, Goran still isn’t quite what she seems, while Keener may be made of sterner stuff than Bingham first appreciates. Still, neither entirely emerges as characters as fully rounded as Bingham, flaws owing more to the script and screen time than the actors’ performances. The ending and dénouement, where everything rotates back to more or less where it was in the beginning, both works and doesn’t. It works in that giving Bingham or anyone else a pat ending would insult the rest of us struggling with shaky livelihoods. It doesn’t because the ambivalence makes the rest of the film struggle for coherence. You expect the story to lead somewhere, and it does, but exactly where is implied best by the film’s title.
Such problems are smoothed out by fine performances. As suggested in other reviews, Clooney is probably the only actor around who could make us care about a complacently careless jerk like Bingham, giving him anxiety and depth that roil under the glib slick suit exterior. The palpable chemistry between he and Farmiga builds on its own warmth and the characters’ mutual fascination, an odd contrast to the impersonal comfort surrounding them. Kenrdick is confident in her part without being showy, making her tyro character sympathetic while not pitiable or – potentially much worse – cute. Reitman also wisely casts veteran collaborators Bateman and J.K. Simmons in key parts, and elsewhere uses real people to describe their firing experiences.
Smart and mature, as melancholy as a jobless Monday morning, don’t be surprised if Up In The Air is considered a minor classic in the years to come. But don’t wait until then to see it.
- Michael Kabel
(Note: An earlier version of this review originally appeared for the film’s theatrical release.)