Posted by: Tony – Dec 28, 2009
Author’s Note: In order for me to best express my opinions and feelings regarding Up in the Air, there will be a few spoilers included in this text. In the best interests of enjoying this motion picture, I would recommend reading this review after having seen it. You have been warned.
“We are not swans. We are sharks.”
-Ryan Bingham (as taken from the teaser trailer for Up in the Air)
This particular line of dialogue helps to explore the tone and overall theme of Up in the Air. Each character is motivated by a purpose and a set of beliefs that may throw the audience off. As you begin to fall in love with any of the characters that grace the screen, their guises begin to slowly dissolve. The unearthing of their true identities may only raise larger questions about ourselves and the world that surrounds us than we may be comfortable with. Perhaps that is why Up in the Air may genuinely be one of the best films I have seen all year.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a piraya in the corporate world. As soon as he graces an office, the inhabitants of this world come to a complete stop. It’s not only a reputation that precedes him. It’s an unfortunate reality about the stability and lifespan of a career in a depressed economy. Bingham is comfortable with what he does for a living. His official title is that of a “career transition counselor.” He views himself as more of an intermediary for the next step in a person’s life when they have lost their job and essentially their financial backing. By constantly being on the move, he never really establishes relationships with anyone around him (including his family that has come to terms with their brother being a fleeting memory). It isn’t until the personal touch of his business is being compromised by Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). Keener has uncovered a means of revolutionizing Bingham’s business by firing people via the Internet. Bingham sees this as a threat. This would not only make his job obsolete, it would disrupt his lifestyle as a frequent flyer that he relishes in so exquisitely. In his eyes, the practice of Internet firing is particularly inhumane and it provides little to no help in assisting people with coping after having lost their jobs. After a dispute involving Bingham, Keener and their boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), Gregory recommends that Bingham take Keener on the road with him to show her the ropes. As they travel together, Keener sees the harsh reality of the business firsthand and Bingham begins to question what he has accepted as normalcy for so long. Bingham is especially challenged as he encounters a fellow frequent flyer named Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga). Goran tests his ability to resist developing intimate feelings for another person while along the way possibly reevaluating his life values.
A film like Up in the Air could not exist in a different time. It captures a moment in our current history that can not be ignored or forgotten. The cinematic frames of offices devoid of desks and replaced with scattered phones facing one another as a secretary looks in horror in response to Bingham’s arrival is not only effective, but heart wrenching. It paints a very stark portrait of corporate America that we may not completely fathom. It is portrayed in the reactions of each employee let go as they react in bursts of anger or showing pictures of the children they will now have to face with an uncertain future. It is the sadness that swells their eyes and the comparisons of losing a job to a death in the family. There is a tragedy that characters such as Bingham and Keener witness day-in and day-out that sets the two characters apart in how they cope.
The performances in this film are all top-notch. Clooney proves time and time again that he is one of the greatest actors of this cinematic era. He is Ryan Bingham. In the moments where he acts as a questionable motivational speaker with lectures concerning what luggage we carry in our metaphorical backpacks or as a “career transition counselor,” Clooney reveals to us what a life removed of connection looks like. With the introduction of the love interest of Goran, we see a light unfamiliar to Bingham glimmer within himself. Maybe he has been wrong to lead an isolated life in the way he has for as long as we can only imagine. It’s also with these new found beats of humanity pulsating through his entire being that he also discovers the consequences of the life he has chosen to live. In probably one of the most honest sequences in the picture, Bingham is told that he exists strictly as a parenthetical to real life after allowing himself to feel a long, lost sense of intimacy. In what follows, Clooney shows gracefully why he can pull off the weight of such a scene with the subtlest of nuances that project the emotive intensity of the scene as opposed to telling us directly.
Farmiga is wonderful in her role as Goran. As a counterpart to Bingham’s reclusive lifestyle, Goran provides mystery to the equative nature of his existence. It’s easy to understand why Bingham would be instantly attracted to her and the progression of their romance is unpredictable. Their final interactions are sure to be endlessly discussed by film aficionados and casual viewers alike. Farmiga was wonderful in The Departed, but she is given a lot more to work with in this film and it shows.
Kendrick’s role as Keener stands out the most. Unfortunately, her largest profile performance to date has been in The Twilight Saga as Jessica. In no way am I downplaying the level of finesse it requires to perform in those pictures, but Up in the Air allows Kendrick to make the world aware of her acting prowess. When Keener is forced to go face-to-face with veteran Bingham, the chemistry between both actors is fantastic. As Bingham takes apart her archaic luggage and throws out what she doesn’t truly need for these travels, it provides an amusing report between both characters. Kendrick isn’t only here for comedic relief. After her first attempt at firing an employee ends with said employee describing to Keener how she will soon commit suicide, the emotional aftermath for Keener is tremendous. It also helps to play against the cold nature of Bingham, because the questions that Keener directs to Bingham are ones he has avoided for his entire career. The thoughts and inquiries that he has defensively avoided for the sake of maintaining a distance between humanity and the burgeoning emotions attached to feeling human. As a supporting player to Clooney’s Bingham, Kendrick’s Keener truly exemplifies the purpose and exuberance that a character should provide to an ensemble cast and a motion picture itself.
It should also be mentioned that all of the actors that take on smaller roles are phenomenal as well. Zach Galifianakis and JK Simmons are both stellar as employees let go by their respective companies. The reactions of the two are important in that they help introduce Bingham as a veteran to this venture and Keener as a naïve visitor to this peculiar business. Jason Bateman has the right set of wit to deliver lines about the successes of their company as the rest of the economic world collapses. Last, but not least, Danny McBride’s honest portrayal of Bingham’s soon to be brother-in-law Jim helps shed light on the character arc that Bingham travels upon throughout the course of Up in the Air to this point.
Director Jason Reitman is going to be a name we will all be hearing years from now. With the streak of films such as Thank You for Smoking, Juno and now Up in the Air, he is proving time and time again that his understanding of filmmaking is truly unmatched. While maintaining a comedic tone, he allows audiences to discover flawed, vulnerable characters and provides a story that challenges their motives and purposes. It’s this weight that keeps people returning to the cinemas to witness what his new projects are all about. His artistry allows the scenes to speak for themselves. He is capable of unleashing performances from his actors that surprise and leave audiences raving about what they have just witnessed. The cinematic undertakings in Up in the Air are clear throughout. Whether it is a scene where Keener is surrounded by empty chairs stored in an office that once was a home for an employee let go or Bingham receiving the news that he has been grounded to Omaha, Nebraska as he stares endlessly at an airplane which has acted as his home for as long as he can remember. These are the cinematic gems that keep filmmaking alive and there is not enough applause in the world for what Reitman has created.
What might make Up in the Air such a triumph is not limited to just the film itself. It’s the way it affects a person’s thought process afterwards. Bingham is a workaholic personified. In his motivational speeches, he asks an audience to question the purpose and value of what we put in our metaphorical backpacks. The furniture, the houses, the cars, the relationships we create and everything in between is touched upon. Bingham looks at an audience after he has added all of these belongings up and leaves them with a single thought. The more weight we carry with us, the more we restrict our abilities to move thus implicating that the slower we move, the faster we die. It’s in a sentiment like that where it becomes frightening to acknowledge any semblance of truth within it. If we remain confined to the baggage we obtain through this lifetime, what is truly being accomplished? By no means am I declaring myself a misanthrope. I value every relationship I have acquired in my twenty-six years, the family I am fortunate to have as well as the possessions I have worked towards acquiring throughout that time as well. Yet, it is a difficult to comprehend filling a bag with everything that you possess and watching as it all perishes. What would any of us do? I guess we would all have to continue moving forward and maintain. Clooney’s Bingham may lead an empty life, but the attributes of his motives are very predominant in many thought processes. The numerous questions it may leave the audience with could be incredibly impacting for some.
As the film ends, Ryan Bingham leaves us with this:
“The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over.”
In a year where we have all witnessed several cinematic triumphs and failures, it would only seem appropriate to close out the year with Up in the Air. This is a film that will not only surprise, but challenge its audiences as well.
Film: Up in the Air Actors: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman Writers: Sheldon Turner and Jason Reitman Director: Jason Reitman Reviewer: Shannon Cleary