Appellate Judge Tom Becker once made a career out of being fired.
We are not swans. We're sharks.
"We are here to make limbo tolerable, to ferry wounded souls across the river of dread until the point where hope is dimly visible. And then stop the boat, shove them in the water, and make them swim."
Facts of the Case
To most people, Ryan Bingham has an unenviable job: he fires people. He goes from company to company all around the country, laying off workers whose bosses don't have the nerve to do it themselves. Using a combination of empathy, unction, and stony resolve; he's a highly successful "career transition specialist"—or, more colloquially, a corporate hitman.
But Ryan Bingham's not most people. He loves his job. Because it entails so much travel, he spends almost all his time Up in the Air on planes, driving rental cars, and staying at hotels. He has little in the way of a personal life and no significant relationships, and he likes it that way. He is merely the bearer of devastating news to strangers he'll never see again.
Ryan then gets some devastating news of his own. His boss, Craig (Jason Bateman, Arrested Development), hires Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, Twilight), a recent college grad, to help streamline the system. Her solution: rather than send people on the road, just use a video hook-up and telecommunicate firings. Ryan is appalled—not only will he become home bound, he realizes that there's an art to doing layoffs that will get lost with this new technology. Plus, he's just met a foxy, high-flying businesswoman, Alex (Vera Farmiga, The Departed), and was looking forward to some interstate rendezvous.
His boss comes up with a suggestion, one that horrifies Ryan even more: he's to take Natalie on the road with him so she can experience firsthand how firings work. Suddenly, Ryan, who's built his life around being alone, has a partner, at least temporarily.
Now, this man who's so studiously avoided relationships has two. He's a mentor to a woman young enough to be his daughter, and his casual relationship with Alex seems to be growing into something much deeper.
What stands out about Up in the Air is not how cleverly it's written or how perfectly it's acted, but how moving a film it is. Part of this, of course, has to do with timing. Had the film been made a few years ago, as Writer/Director Jason Reitman had originally planned, it would have been affecting but would not have resonated as it does now, in the era of downsizing and joblessness.
It's really a deceptively simple film, a modern tragedy tricked out like a romcom—albeit, a sophisticated, grown-up romcom featuring some of the snappiest dialogue this side of a 1930s screwball comedy and delivered with the same razor-sharp verbal choreography you'd expect from a Cary Grant or a Katharine Hepburn.
For anyone suffering through this time of the imploding American dream, seeing a guy like Ryan, who makes a very good living off the suffering of others, would be infuriating—not that he's actually doing anything besides delivering a message. The irony is lost on no one that companies that can't afford to pay their workers are coming up with the cash to outsource this sensitive, yet dreadful service.
Ryan is good at what he does not because he enjoys bringing bad news, but because he recognizes that losing your job is a part of life. He's trying to sell these people a bill of goods that he knows they're not buying despite the platitudes he offers—"Anybody who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are now, and it's because they were sitting there that they were able to do it." He knows these people are not going to react well, that they're going to blame him, and he lets their anger roll off his back. But Ryan is not beyond empathy, in one case helping a man see that losing this job might be an opportunity to follow a long-ago dream.
These brief, arms-length connections, good and bad, are enough for Ryan. He's less of a personality than a persona, and his world is a sterile, ordered place of planes, hotel rooms, and rental cars in which he is a king (by dint of his frequency of travel). Ryan has life figured out, so much so that he has a sideline as a motivational speaker, encouraging people to rid themselves of such encumbrances as emotional ties to others.
Of course, by removing such elements as permanence and emotional attachment from the life equation, Ryan's pragmatism threatens to overtake his humanity.
In other hands, Up in the Air could have been a standard-issue uplift dramedy, with Ryan a misanthropic dullard turned 'round by the love of two women. But Reitman and his top-of-their-games cast never fall into the valley of cliché, giving us a rich life-study that consistently exceeds expectations.
With Up in the Air, George Clooney has found a role that fits him like a $2,000 suit. For the film to work as well as it does, Clooney was not just the best choice, he was the only choice. At his core, Ryan is such a miserably misfitted person that spending nearly two hours with him could be uncomfortable. Clooney brings not only his considerable charm to role, along with a recognizable maturity, but a well-disguised, near heartbreaking vulnerability, as well. Clooney is completely natural here, capitalizing on his star quality in the best possible way—after all, in his galaxy, Ryan is a star, the man who cruises past the checkout line at airports and hotels, who is so sure of himself and his abilities that he barely breaks a sweat when he's about to crush some worker's dream. This is the best Clooney has ever been.
Farmiga and Kendrick lend excellent support as the two women who suddenly become part of Ryan's life. They are very much two sides of the same coin, with Alex, perhaps, what Natalie will grow into. In one outstanding and perceptive scene, Natalie opens up about her concerns about life to an understanding Alex, and we get the sort of insight into these people that's rare, particularly from a filmmaker as young as Reitman. Bateman is also terrific in a small but pivotal role as Ryan's boss.
The award-winning script, adapted by Reitman and Sheldon Turner from a novel by Walter Kirn, is filled with wit and astute observations. Reitman never betrays his characters in service of a clever line, and every one of them has a unique voice. The story unfolds naturally. There are no hugely dramatic movie moments; you find yourself being gently pulled in to Up in the Air until you are engrossed, which makes the affecting, thought-provoking end that much stronger. Incidentally, Reitman had originally planned on making the firing scenes comical, but when the economy tanked for real, he abandoned that idea. Instead, he employed people who actually had lost their jobs to play the firees, and their reactions to the news that they are being let go were unscripted. These sequences—in which these people stare at an off-camera Ryan and vent, plead, reason, curse him, try to understand—are gutwrenching and powerful.
Here and there, the film falters a bit. A long mid-section in which Ryan attends his sister's wedding has some good moments, but also a few rather heavy-handed contrivances. A late-game plot turn—essential to the story—is set up a little clumsily. You can pretty much see where it's going before it gets there, and it calls into question how one character was able to do certain things earlier in the film.
This Blu-ray from Sony looks and sounds great. The picture is just superb, with deep blacks and good level of depth. Audio is a DTS Master Surround track that serves this dialogue-heavy film well.
For such a prestigious film, you'd think Paramount might give us a Special Edition, but this Blu-ray is awfully skimpy in the supplements. The only extra of any substance is a commentary track with Reitman, AD Jason Blumfeld, and DP Eric Steelberg. It's a decent listen, though sometimes you wish Reitman would go a little more in-depth when talking about his characters. As with many tracks for recent films, a lot of time is spent hashing over "war stories" ("Remember how bad the weather was this day," and that sort of thing). It's interesting, but it just doesn't add as much to the viewing experience as it could. Elsewhere, there's a featurette on the company that did the impressive title sequence and has done titles for all of Reitman's films; a couple of minutes of "Storyboards" (actually, some stand-ins running around the sets in place of the stars); deleted scenes, some of which are actually quite good; a music video; a "prank" shot; and trailers. Despite the solid tech, this is not a particularly strong package, which is surprising. Up in the Air is one of the most honored and acclaimed films of 2009, but it's not a blockbuster that's going to inspire a second, jazzed-up edition. A "Behind the Scenes" featurette with the cast, or even a mini-doc on the current unemployment crisis, would have made this a stellar package.
Affecting, with a satisfying mix of funny and sad, Up in the Air is a treat. Well crafted and impeccably acted, the film is highly recommended, and despite the absence of substantial supplemental material, this Blu-ray is the way to go.
Hug your kids, pet your dog, call your mom, grab a coffee with a friend. You'll want to after watching Up in the Air.
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