Ten Word or Less Review: Mild mannered, ambiguous, relevant tale. Little overrated but good.
Spoiler Note: I will discuss at some length the ending of this film. Don’t read the last paragraphs if you plan to see.
We value out homes, our families and the possessions that surround us no matter how cheesy or run of the mill they may be. We are comforted by our routines and the places we know and find familiar. The vast majority of us lead lives not dissimilar from one another despite what we may think. Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” is about the person who does not wish to lead this life at all. It is about a man who rejects all that is typical with most of us and regrets nothing about the decision. “Up in the Air” has been greeted with massive critical praise and more than a suggestion it could win the Best Picture Oscar. And while it is a solid and interesting film on several levels, such kudos reflects more about the thin year passed than the movie itself. It’s a movie which in some ways embraces convention, but finds ways to tweak the message just enough to warrant discussion.
George Clooney is Ryan Bingham, a man who relishes traveling from one city to another on a virtually unending flight across the country, all for the purpose of firing people for a living. Bingham doesn’t love what he does, though he’s good at it. The film contains numerous, notable sequences of people being terminated from their jobs, some of which are devastating. These are the emotional meat of the picture. You will value your job when you leave the theater. Bingham is so exceedingly proud of his ability to move from one place to another, removing people from their places of employment effortlessly, that he even offers a seminar on how to shed oneself of unnecessary possessions and relationships. When this method of work and life ideology is threatened by an upstart co-worker, Anna Kendrick, who wishes to eliminate the travel aspect of their jobs by firing people via web-cam, Ryan is tasked with showing her that the simplicity with which she sees their task is folly. He doesn’t just ‘fire’ people. He has to make them feel okay about being fired. As this siege on his livelihood begins to unfurl Bingham’s values begin to unfurl in tandem. His declared loner status get called into question by said upstart who sees his life choice as warped, in turn cracks of doubt begin to form in his impenetrable, cynical armor when his family calls him in for his sister’s wedding. In its own way, it all sounds like fairly routine movie stuff. Growth, personal change, not being selfish, so on and so forth. But it’s not exactly that to a tee.
Director Jason Reitman (Juno) directs everything with a cool, even handed sense, but he has tasked himself with walking a slippery slope of cinematic values. On one hand, movies, for all their dubious morality, tend to advocate things like marriage and monogamy across the board. But Clooney’s portrayal of Bingham is one of slick enjoyment. It’s the culmination of numerous roles for him as his ability to play rapscallions and lovable loners culminates with this fine performance. Though his job is a horrible one, he is not a horrible person. He does not relish in the firing of people, he hates it. It’s something he merely happens to be good at doing. Characters like Bingham are supposed to learn that family and relationships are good things and that they should embrace them. Next to that message the only thing more adhered to in Movieland is the message of individuality. Movies love nothing more than to tell you to be yourself at all cost and tell the rest of the world to go to Hell if they don’t like it. In this instance the two messages are at odds with one another and “Up in the Air” finds itself in a curious place trying to reconcile the two halves. To put it clearly, Bingham is very happy with who he is, the audience begrudgingly likes him for who he is despite his unenviable tasks, so why is the movie trying to change him? His only real crime is being really good at a really bad job. The answer being there would be no movie without the change, so I digress. As Bingham begins to wonder about his life and whether or not he’s made the right choices, he starts to feel his wanderlust ebb. His sporadic and enjoyable relationship with a fellow life long business traveler, played by “The Departed’s” Vera Farmiga, starts to feel as if it could be something more than just occasional sexual bliss in hotel rooms. And it’s at this point that a forgone conclusion becomes something a little different.
You’ve seen the scene in dozens of other films. The romantic lead, Hanks, Cruise, Fox, etc., realizing who his life love is, feels compelled to find her at all costs and reconcile his love with her at that moment. They run off in taxis, on horseback, motorcycles, any mode of transportation that can get them to their soul mate before they marry the other guy or walk away from the pre-ordained meeting place, never to be seen again. I don’t know if “It Happened One Night” invented this plot device but it rarely changes. “Up in the Air” manages to turn the scenario around in a unique way. As our dashing, newly matured Clooney runs off to embrace his new life as a kept man who loves other souls instead of advocating their discarding, the movie yanks the rug out from under him. It takes into consideration a question that almost no movie of this type ever does, that being ‘What happens when you’re emotionally ready to become something else, but have no real way to accomplish what you want to become?’ It’s all the trappings of traditional romantic comedy, but none of the convenience. This particular tale gives our odd protagonist no easy out, and nowhere to turn.
“Up in the Air” follows movie logic to a tee by making Bingham evolve into something better than he was, but in the end he’s not much better off for changing. We may not know what Bill whispered to Scarlet in “Lost in Translation.” We can only guess if Virginia opened the door for Paul at the end of “Sideways.” But regardless, we felt on some level that they were better off for their troubles, even if we can’t say for sure what happened to them. Here, we’re left with an odd feeling that all of the growth, all of the desire to change, all that Bingham has been through may have been for nothing. He’s left to wonder the friendly skies as his only refuge, just as when the story started. The ending can be interpreted to varying degrees, but there’s a strong sense of a void hanging over things as the movie draws to a close. It will likely leave some unsatisfied and shrugging, but it’s different and daring to say the least. While I admire the small details that went into the telling of this now traditional movie story, calling it an instant classic is a bit of a reach. It genuinely reflects the uncertainty of our age, but is too even tempered and limited in scope to applaud all that loudly. It deserves more of an appreciative clap and pat on the back than that statue of a little gold man that so many covet.